Senate Backs Bargaining Rights for Airport Screeners

The Senate moves toward giving security screeners at airports collective-bargaining rights, defeating a GOP-sponsored effort to keep unions out. The Senate is working on a larger bill that would implement some recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Congress and the White House may be headed for a showdown over labor rights for airport screeners. Yesterday, the Senate voted to allow collective bargaining for screeners, just as the House did in January. But the Bush administration says the president will veto the measure. It's attached to a bill to implement some of the recommendations of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER: Labor rights for the nation's 43,000 airport screeners has been a hot-button issue ever since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. The Bush administration says it needs flexibility to move workers around to deal with a changing threat, and that it can't be constrained by union negotiations. TSA chief Kip Hawley testified in the Senate on Monday that even making an exception for emergencies wouldn't help.

Mr. KIP HAWLEY (Director, Transportation Security Administration): You cannot be sure until it's too late that you've had an emergency. You do not get the advance warning. It's not like a fire erupting or an accident happening. In our business, if it's an emergency, you've had an incident.

FESSLER: Hawley said the administration has been trying to improve conditions for screeners, providing more pay for good performance and cutting injury rates. But Democrats and government employee unions say that's not enough. They say low morale and high turnover among screeners has weakened aviation security. Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut noted that other government employees already have collective bargaining and whistleblower protection.

Representative JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): There's no good reason to deny these rights to these people. We're only applying to them the same rights as other people within TSA and others in law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.

FESSLER: Lieberman said under the plan, screeners wouldn't be allowed to strike, and in times of crisis, TSA could still redeploy workers. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said there's no question screeners would cooperate.

Ms. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): I think it's a little insulting to them to act as if they would not respond when directed under an emergency.

FESSLER: But Republicans say TSA has to be able to turn on a dime, as they did last summer in response to the London bombing plot. South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint also noted that labor rights for screeners was not among the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. He charged that Democrats were just trying to reward labor groups which helped them regain control of Congress.

Mr. JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): Democrats should not pay back unions at the expense of our security, and we should not be afraid to stand up against union bosses so we can keep America safe. It will also kill this bill. The president will veto it.

FESSLER: And DeMint said Republicans have enough votes to sustain the veto. Still, DeMint's amendment to remove the screener provision was defeated.

Charges between the two parties over who's willing to jeopardize security by standing firm in a dispute over unions is not new. A similar battle erupted five years ago during debate on creating the Homeland Security Department. In that case, Republicans prevailed and Democrats lost control of the Senate amid charges they were weak on security. Democrats hope this time they'll have the advantage.

Sen. MCCASKILL: It's hard to imagine…

FESSLER: Again, Senator McCaskill.

Sen. MCCASKILL: …that the president would use the veto to veto a piece of legislation that is all about making our country safer. I can't imagine that the American public would think that is a good use of the veto pen.

FESSLER: Of course, the 9/11 bill still needs final Senate approval and there are other amendments to change the screener provisions. Differences also need to be worked out with the House, especially over how to distribute Homeland Security grants. The House bill would give more money to high-risk areas such as New York and L.A.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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