KC Airport Screeners Vote to Join Union

May 9--Security screeners at Kansas City International Airport have voted to join a union following years of challenges that made the matter a test case for labor-management relations in the post-Sept. 11 era.

By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, the 461 eligible employees of FirstLine Transportation Security Inc. voted to join the International Union, Security, Police, Fire, Professionals of America.

The National Labor Relations Board, which monitors union elections, reported that 228 workers voted in favor of the union while 129 voted against joining. One ballot was challenged.

It was the third vote by the screeners. The Security Professionals union first tried to organize the group in 2005 but fell eight votes short in an election whose ballots were impounded until 2006 because of legal disputes. The Machinists union lost an earlier election.

"This is the first group to unionize through an NLRB election," said Steve Maritas, a Security Professionals union organizer. "It was a real good turnout, and our strategy worked."

FirstLine Transportation said it would not challenge the election results. The labor board most likely will certify the results next week.

"FirstLine respects the decision of its transportation security officers," said Steve Schuster, an attorney for the company, in a statement. "The company is proud of its record of performance and hard-working men and women who support this effort. FirstLine will work to ensure that it maintains the highest level of security and customer service to which KCI travelers have become accustomed."

KCI is one of six airports in the country that contracts out security screening services to a private security firm under a pilot program with the Transportation Security Administration. All other screeners are federal government workers who are prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining.

The company challenged the organizing efforts, arguing that its employees should be treated the same as the federal counterparts who cannot engage in collective bargaining due to national security concerns. The NLRB agreed to review the matter.

But the five-member labor board in Washington last year ruled that privately employed screeners had the right to organize. It said Congress in creating the Transportation Security Administration did not specifically prohibit private-sector employees contracted by the federal government from collective bargaining.

"If Congress wanted to exclude private screeners from the (National Labor Relations) act's coverage, it could, and presumably would, have done so," the NLRB said in its final decision.

Union leaders and labor law experts at the time praised the ruling, noting that a decision in the company's favor could have jeopardized the union status of thousands of security jobs -- including police officers, firefighters and security guards of federal buildings.

Kansas City screeners are the first to vote for union membership through NLRB election. About 170 screeners at the airport in Rochester, N.Y., will vote later this month. A union for private screeners at San Francisco's airport was recognized by the employer without requiring an election.

Before last week's election, Maritas said that employee morale had dropped since the May 2005 election. He said the election was just the first step in a process.

"Now local leaders will be elected, and they will work toward obtaining the first contract," he said.

To reach Randolph Heaster, call (816) 234-4746 or send e-mail to rheaster@kcstar.com.