ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One of many issues highlighted by the attack on Northwest Flight 253 involves all those TSA airports screeners who scan your bags and check your ticket. For nearly a year now, the Transportation Security Administration has been without a permanent leader. President Obama has named Los Angeles Airport Security Assistant Chief Erroll Southers to the post. But the Senate has yet to vote on that nomination. That is because one Republican senator wants a guarantee that the administration won't allow collective bargaining for the screeners.
As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it's an issue the Senate has visited before and remembers well.
BRIAN NAYLOR: GOP Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina says it would be wrong if, in his words, union bosses were to dictate security at the nation's airports. In a statement released by his office, DeMint says the attempted terror attack in Detroit is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA. Earlier this month, DeMint questioned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the issue.
Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): I mean, how can unionization and collective bargaining enhance security in our airports?
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Well, Senator, the answer is collective bargaining and security are not mutually exclusive concepts. And they're done - these types of agreements are negotiated all the time, all over the United States.
NAYLOR: Giving airport screeners the right to bargain collectively was a nonstarter for the Bush administration back in 2002, when it drew up legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security and put airport screeners under its jurisdiction. While employees were able to join a union, they were blocked from bargaining for a contract. When Democrats tried to insert a right to collective bargaining, they were attacked for opposing Homeland Security. In the elections of 2002, Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Democrat, saw himself depicted in a TV ad alongside pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
(Soundbite of TV Advertisement)
Unidentified Man: Max Cleland has voted against the president's vital homeland security efforts 11 times. Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading.
NAYLOR: That fall, Cleland lost to Saxby Chambliss, the Republican who has held that Georgia seat since. But times have changed. Seven years later, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano had this to say.
Sec. NAPOLITANO: I think that we can accomplish collective bargaining, and also do that in such a fashion that we never, at one moment, sacrifice any wit of security, that that can be built into any collective bargaining agreement.
NAYLOR: DeMint makes the argument that allowing airport screeners to bargain for a contract would jeopardize TSA's ability to adjust quickly to new security threats. He says security decisions that take minutes to implement today could take weeks or months of arbitration. In fact, other security and law enforcement officers within the Department of Homeland Security, including the Border Patrol and customs officers, are already unionized. John Gage is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. The AFGE hopes to win the right to represent airport screeners. He says DeMint's comments amount to demagoguery.
Mr. JOHN GAGE (President, American Federation of Government Employees): Having a union certainly is not in any way - affect national security. And of course, we use the examples of the police that rushed into the World Trade Centers of 9/11, and the firefighters. And even our two officers down at Fort Hood, who took down the shooter, were AFGE union members.
NAYLOR: A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says because DeMint has placed a hold on Southers' nomination - in effect, threatening a filibuster - it will take 60 votes to proceed. Reid says he will schedule a vote on Southers as soon as the Senate returns to Washington next month.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.