The Corner

Politics & Policy

A TSA Strike Would Be Illegal. Period.

Transportation Security Administration agents in Los Angeles, Calif., February 20, 2014. (Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS)

In The New York Times, author Barbara Ehrenreich and former labor official Gary Stevenson call on employees of the Transportation Security Administration to go on strike, declaring, “the time has come for a genuine, old-fashioned strike, one with picket lines, chants, quickened pulses and the power to reignite the traditional fighting spirit of American labor.”

They note, “a strike by T.S.A. agents, as federal workers, would be illegal, as was the wave of public-sector strikes in the 1960s and ’70s.”

That seems like an important detail, and federal law is not vague on this:

An individual may not accept or hold a position in the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia if he participates in a strike, or asserts the right to strike, against the Government of the United States, or is a member of an organization of employees of the Government of the United States or of individuals employed by the government of the District of Columbia that he knows asserts the right to strike against the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia.

All federal employees take an oath declaring, “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.”

Ehrenreich and Stevenson mention the not-so-long ago example that many readers are probably already thinking about, the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike. In August of that year, President Reagan declared that by striking, the air-traffic controllers were in violation of their oaths and ordered them back to work. Only a fraction of the striking workers returned to work. Two days later, Reagan fired 11,345 striking workers, and barred them from ever being rehired. One might think this would lead to chaos at the airports, but within a short time, air-traffic control supervisors managed to get things running reasonably smoothly:

To the chagrin of the strikers, the FAA’s contingency plans worked. Some 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 nonstriking controllers and 900 military controllers in manning the commercial airport towers. Before long, about 80 percent of flights were operating normally. Air freight remained virtually unaffected.

Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1986 and were rehired; they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was organized in 1987 and had no connection with PATCO. The ban on the remaining strike participants was lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Every choice to strike is a gamble, and the gamble turned out really badly for most members of PATCO.

Showing up for work every morning, knowing that your paycheck delayed indefinitely, is an indisputably awful situation. Most government shutdowns get resolved in a matter of days; this is now the longest one ever. But as of Saturday, 94 percent of TSA staff are reporting as scheduled, and Administrator David Pekoske approved a one-time $500 award for each uniformed TSA screening officer, utilizing “unique authorities provided TSA in law.”

The Transportation Security Administration has roughly 60,000 screeners involved in both passenger and cargo inspections. The first key question is how many TSA employees would strike. Federal law enforcement employees at courthouses, federal buildings, and military bases do security screening; they could probably be temporarily reassigned to airports in an emergency.

How quickly could the Department of Homeland Security hire and train new screeners? Applicants must have “a high school diploma or GED, a clean criminal history and a fair credit score. You also can’t be color blind or deaf, and you have to be able to lift 50 pounds.” After one month of classroom training, new hires are put on the security lines as “on-the-job trainees” and are supposed to get three months of working with a more-experienced employee. Then an employee has to pass three tests on X-ray screening, pat-downs, and bag searches. After passing those tests, an employee has completed training. So in about four months, a new recruit can be deployed at an airport.

Striking TSA workers could very well find themselves out of a job.

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