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 only other airport where private screeners have sought a union is San Francisco International Airport. The Service Employees International Union initially represented those workers with no objection from Covenant Aviation Security. However, a rival union emerged that sought to replace the SEIU, which has resulted in a long legal battle during which the San Francisco screeners have lost union representation.

Central to the Kansas City dispute is whether private-sector workers of a company contracted by the Department of Homeland Security are subject to the same restrictions that apply to their federal counterparts.

Congress made it clear that employees of the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees all airport security operations, are prohibited from joining a union and engaging in collective bargaining over work rules and other employment-related matters.The rationale at the time was that the war on terror would fundamentally change the way the U.S. would approach aviation security. It was reasoned that with the urgency to provide protections the Department of Homeland Security could not be hampered by work rules, overtime and scheduling conflicts, and grievances that would arise in typical labor-management relations.

According to a government consultant as well as FirstLine, the screening operations at KCI have been successful. The study commissioned by the government in 2004 cited KCI?s excellence, with shorter waiting periods and more thorough screenings than most of the airports employing government workers.

?The public-private partnership we?ve established in Kansas City just plain works,? said John DeMell, FirstLine?s president. ?It allows the TSA to focus on safety issues and not spend a lot of time on human resources functions. There have been no complaints from the aviation community or the airlines. We?re very proud of what we?ve accomplished, and most of it is due to the hard work of the screeners themselves.?

Despite the security operation?s success at KCI, there nevertheless has been enough discontent among the workers at KCI that three unions have tried to organize the company since FirstLine began its operations nearly three years ago. The Machinists and the United Steelworkers of America were the first two, but the NLRB eventually ruled that only unions representing security guards could organize the screeners.

Last December, the International Union, Security, Police, Fire Professionals of America, or SPFPA, got involved in organizing FirstLine employees, leading to the June vote.

Bob Inman, an organizer for the union, said he noticed a high turnover rate among airport screeners due to the physically demanding nature of the work.

?It seemed like there were a lot of injuries with the lifting of heavy bags and other things,? he said. ?You saw problems with rotator cuffs, carpal tunnel (syndrome), and bad backs. But as for the screeners there, they?re probably among the best around. I think they do a better job than most of the TSA airports.?

Mark Arsenault, who runs a Web site that is a clearinghouse for information and job developments for airport screeners around the country, said most screeners who have contacted him like their jobs. But, he said, screeners get frustrated when inspection procedures dictate that a longer search might be required even as supervisors stress speed.

?A lot of the issues they have are that policies from above seem to change quite frequently,? said Arsenault, whose wife was a federal screener before resigning a couple of months ago. ?That can add to the stress when the workload itself is quite substantial and there?s pressure to inspect so many bags and keep the lines moving. Management has put a premium on them to keep the line moving at the expense of security,? he said.

In a report released last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said injuries and illness among TSA employees were more than three times that of other federal workers, 19.4 percent for TSA workers in fiscal 2003, compared with 5.5 percent for federal workers on the average.

DeMell extols FirstLine?s work injury record, saying 1.2 percent of the workforce is currently out due to injuries.

?That equates to 7 or 8 employees who are on a no-work list due to injury,? said DeMell, whose firm is based in Eastlake, Ohio. ?Our safety record is superior to most other individual airports. We work very closely with the employee, care provider and insurance when it comes to workers? compensation injuries. I would take exception with the union?s assessment.?

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