KCI Screeners Are Test Case for Labor-Management Relations

Passenger and baggage screeners at Kansas City International Airport are part of a national workforce of nearly 50,000 people responsible for making sure the events of Sept. 11, 2001, never happen again.

?The issue is not whether these workers have a right to organize, but whether the NLRB has jurisdiction in this case.?

Steve Maritas, SPFPA

Passenger and baggage screeners at Kansas City International Airport are part of a national workforce of nearly 50,000 people responsible for making sure the events of Sept. 11, 2001, never happen again.

But the 600 workers at KCI are different from most of their peers around the country in a couple of respects. First, they are private-sector employees, working for a company that has contracted with the federal government. Screeners at only four other U.S. airports have the same designation.

Secondly, they have become a test case for labor-management relations in the post-9/11 era that could affect the rights of workers in thousands of similar jobs.

In late June, the KCI screeners employed by FirstLine Transportation Security Inc. voted in a union-representation election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. However, the company appealed the decision by Mike McConnell, the NLRB?s regional director in Overland Park, that the agency had the jurisdiction and authority to hold the vote.

The outcome of the vote is unknown. The votes were impounded while the appeal went to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. That board, the ultimate authority within the NLRB, surprised some labor law observers and alarmed the labor movement when it decided to review the case.

What started as a relatively small matter in Kansas City has spun into a national debate among private companies, unions, members of Congress and law professors over the issues the FirstLine election presents.

The company has argued that the privately employed screeners at KCI should be treated the same as the 45,000 federal screeners, who are not allowed to unionize. If the NLRB finds that the two employee groups are different, then the company contends that, in the interest of national security, the private screeners should not be allowed to form a union.As a result, the notion that private screeners would not be allowed to collectively bargain has some labor law experts concerned, given the hundreds of thousands of workers who currently have union representation and whose duties could be defined as having a national security component. Those jobs could be everything from police officers and firefighters to security guards of federal buildings, federal courthouses and nuclear power plants. ?Even if you think the (Transportation Security Administration) is justified in disallowing unions among its employees, letting the NLRB apply that rule to private-sector workers would be troublesome,? said Joseph Slater, professor at the University of Toledo College of Law. ?It?s a slippery slope to a whole slew of other jobs that could be affected. I hope that will give the board some pause when they review this case.?

Privatizing issues

After the Sept. 11 attacks, in which suicide hijackers crashed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000, the country was in a panic to protect against further attacks. Congress gave control of all U.S. airport checkpoint screening to the Transportation Security Administration. Congress felt federal employees with more training would do a better job than the private company screening system that allowed the 19 attackers to get on board with box cutters.

Since the law allowed airports to return to private screening in November 2004, KCI and four other airports were put into a two-year pilot program in the fall of 2002 to see if private security screening contractors could meet expectations. So far, only Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota has applied to seek a private firm, but others may follow.

FirstLine is a subsidiary formed by SMS Holdings in the aftermath of 9/11 to enter the airport security business. It got the KCI contract, worth more than $30 million annually, and intends to bid on other contracts when airports return to private screening contractors.

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