The Senate voted Tuesday to give 45,000 airport screeners the same union rights as other public safety officers, despite vigorous opposition by Republicans and a veto threat from the White House.
A broad anti-terrorism bill that would put in place unfinished recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission also would give airport screeners the right to bargain collectively. An amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would have removed that right was defeated by a vote of 51-46.
The Senate also failed to resolve the issue of how to divide $3 billion in homeland security grants, an issue that pits rural states against states with densely populated metropolitan areas.
The bill nearly quadruples the total pot of money and reduces the minimum amount that each state receives from 0.75 percent of the total dollars to 0.45 percent. States considered to be at high risk of a terrorist attack will receive more money.
An amendment that would continue to guarantee each state at least 0.75 percent survived an initial challenge.
The Senate expects to complete work on the bill by the end of the week.
The House last month passed a similar anti-terrorism bill that had the same union provision for airport screeners, an indication of organized labor's strength with Democrats now running Congress.
Republicans pledged to eliminate the union provision when negotiators sit down to merge the two versions of the legislation that aims to tighten security for airlines and railroads. A White House statement last week threatened a veto if the labor provision remained.
"We're not going to let big labor compromise national security," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He noted there are not enough votes in either the House or the Senate to override a veto by President Bush.
The conflict over labor rights is a reprise of the debate in 2002 over creating the Homeland Security Department. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., voted against the bill because it did not guarantee union bargaining rights. That same year, Cleland was defeated for re-election by Republican Saxby Chambliss, who accused him of being soft on terrorism.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are trying to compromise with amendments that would give screeners some rights. Collins' amendment would give them whistleblower protection and the right to appeal management decisions, but not the right to bargain collectively.
McCaskill's amendment would give screeners the right to bargain collectively but not for pay, and would give the Transportation Security Administration the power to "take whatever actions may be necessary" during emergencies.
Labor scored an earlier victory last month when the House passed legislation that would make it easier to organize unions by eliminating secret-ballot elections demanded by employers.
After his amendment was defeated, DeMint said Democrats had turned the anti-terrorism bill into a reward for organized labor, which had helped elect them in November.
"Collective bargaining will not work for our airports," DeMint said. He said strengthening airport screeners' rights would hinder the government's flexibility to move them around in response to terrorist threats.
"That is completely untrue and every other Department of Homeland Security employee should take personal offense," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
According to the federation, there are 53,000 workers with collective bargaining rights employed at Homeland Security, including customs, immigration and border patrol agents.
A stumbling block to Senate passage of the anti-terrorism bill was removed last week when the department agreed to grant states more time to comply with new driver's license standards.
The Senate bill would upgrade security on passenger and freight railroads and require all cargo carried on commercial passenger aircraft to be screened for bombs.
It would provide money for state and local emergency communications systems, expand a visa waiver benefit for favored countries and improve intelligence sharing among federal, state and local officials.
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