Kansas City Airport Tension Mounts Over Union

Hourly employees of the private security firm at Kansas City International Airport participated in a union election last week, but the results remain unknown. The employer and union continue to battle over legal issues.

Central to the dispute is whether more than 500 security screeners for FirstLine Transportation Security Inc. are eligible to engage in collective bargaining. FirstLine has a contract with the Transportation Security Administration to handle baggage screening at KCI, one of five airports nationwide that uses private screeners.

The Overland Park regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that it had jurisdiction to hold the election, said Dan Hubbel, assistant to the NLRB regional director. Employees voted over three days last week on whether they wanted to join the International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, or SPFPA.

However, FirstLine appealed the ruling to the NLRB in Washington, which has yet to consider the matter. Therefore, the votes of the FirstLine employees have been impounded until a decision is made by the Washington board.

FirstLine contends that the employees cannot engage in collective bargaining because the federal screeners of the Transportation Security Administration cannot do so due to national security concerns. In January 2003, the federal Department of Transportation made the determination that TSA airport screeners are not entitled to join a union.

FirstLine employees essentially perform the same function using the same equipment and are acting under the direction and control of the TSA, said Steve Schuster, a Kansas City attorney representing FirstLine. If the TSA says that its employees should not engage in collective bargaining, that same rationale and public policy should apply to the private sector as well.

A union official said private-sector employees are not subject to the Homeland Security Acts prohibitions regarding union-organizing.

We believe this is just a stall tactic to take away the rights of the screener, said Steve Maritas, an SPFPA International organizer. We prevailed in the first process of the NLRB, and we believe well win the appeal, also.

The Transportation Security Administration was created and took over the role of security screening at airports following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. In 2002, five airports were allowed to contract out the security services: KCI, San Francisco International Airport, Greater Rochester (N.Y.) International Airport, Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Airport and Tupelo (Miss.) Regional Airport.

In April 2004, a study commissioned by the Transportation Security Administration showed that FirstLines operations at KCI generally outperformed the federal screeners at other airports. Late last year, FirstLine had its contract extended one year to continue its screening services on behalf of the federal government at KCI.

Other airport operators around the country are now looking into hiring private screening firms. Those decisions could be affected by the outcome of the legal battle in Kansas City, Schuster said.

This has national implications, quite frankly, he said.

Maritas said the SPFPA got involved in the FirstLine campaign last December, after the NLRB ruled that the screeners were considered guards and could not be organized by two other unions that had tried in the past, the Machinists and United Steelworkers.

They want to join the union because of safety issues and respect, he said. People are lifting heavy bags and getting injured. Then they are poorly treated by the company.

Maritas said his union also believes that FirstLine employees have been underpaid under prevailing wage laws. Under these wage rules, guards are paid $16.67 an hour in the Kansas City region, and Maritas said FirstLine has a two-tiered wage system that pays some people $15 an hour and others $13 an hour.

Schuster said federal guidelines set the minimum wages and benefits that are paid to private employees of firms that contract with the Transportation Security Administration, but he was unfamiliar with specific allocations made by FirstLine.

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