Union Wants to Organize Airport Screeners

WASHINGTON -- The nation's largest federal labor union will push to organize airport security screeners after a finding by a United Nations agency that the screeners should have union representation.

The 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees says it could improve workplace conditions. The Transportation Security Administration has one of the highest attrition and injury rates in the federal government, which aggravates staffing shortages that make airport security lines longer. The AFGE plans to lobby Congress' new Democratic leaders to let TSA screeners unionize.

The TSA says unionization could hinder managers from quickly moving screeners to new assignments as security threats arise.

The nation's 45,000 screeners have been barred from collective bargaining since the TSA was formed after the 9/11 attacks to safeguard aviation.

The U.N. International Labor Organization's finding says that policy "may impede unduly upon the rights of these federal employees" and urges the TSA to "engage in collective bargaining" with screeners. The Geneva-based agency released its finding this month in response to a complaint filed in 2003 by the AFGE. The union lost a lawsuit seeking to represent TSA screeners.

The finding carries no legal obligation but reflects that the TSA is not following the United Nations' "core labor standards," says Hans von Rohland, an International Labor Organization spokesman.

"Now we have the rationale that this is not just a union whining," AFGE lawyer Mark Roth says. "This is a formal finding of a violation."

The finding will encourage Congress to let screeners unionize, he says.

When Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and Senate in January, "we certainly have a much more receptive Congress," union lobbyist Charity Wilson says.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., says union representation would provide "basic worker protections that will ensure screeners are treated like professionals." Lowey proposed in July to let screeners unionize, but her measure was defeated on a 14-15 vote in her House Homeland Security Committee.

Lowey hopes to add the measure to a broad legislative effort to strengthen domestic security that Democrats will push in January.

"I feel good about it for next year," Lowey says.

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe says unionization "would limit our ability to make decisions rapidly in the interests of national security and in response to risk."

Most federal labor unions are barred from negotiating wages and benefits, which are set by Congress. They can help set workplace conditions and file grievances heard by neutral parties.

"We will bargain safety conditions, health conditions, fair rotations of work and assignments, so people have a job they want to stay in and are not treated arbitrarily," Roth says.