MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Starting next month, airport security screeners will vote for the first time on whether to join a union. But Republicans say they fear union involvement for TSA employees will compromise national security, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: When John Pistole became the administrator of the TSA last year, he took over an agency with troubles. A study found TSA employees had among the lowest morale of the entire federal workforce, a high rate of on-the-job injuries and among the highest turnover rates.
It seems as much as airline passengers hate going through airport security, security screeners weren't crazy about being behind those X-ray machines, either.
Pistole, a former FBI agent, held a series of town hall meetings with TSA employees at airports across the country. He reported the results at a recent congressional hearing.
Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (Administrator, Transportation Security Administration): What I found was a great deal of frustration with the lack of uniformity and consistency in the way we handle our personnel policies. And so that was part of what informed my decision and judgment to allow them to vote.
NAYLOR: Pistole announced early this month that he will allow TSA screeners, or officers as they're formally known, to vote on joining a union and, if so, which union to join. Assuming the screeners choose a union, the TSA will then begin bargaining with them on a contract.
Pistole says anything involving security will be off the table. Screeners won't be able to bargain on wages or benefits, qualifications, testing or discipline standards.
Coleen Kelly is president of the NTEU, one of the two unions vying to represent the screeners; the other is the American Federation of Government Employees. Kelly says there are plenty of issues left on the table.
Ms. COLEEN KELLY (President, NTEU): Things about their transfers, if they want to move to another location, if they need to change their hours of work, things like that are things that today are unilaterally decided by management, and that goes even to the promotion system.
NAYLOR: Despite Pistole's assurances that he won't allow bargaining on any issue that might affect security, Republicans in Congress are opposed to letting screeners take part in collective bargaining at all.
GOP Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah is co-sponsor of legislation to block the move.
Representative JASON CHAFFETZ (Republican, Utah): I am the chairman of the oversight committee. That has jurisdiction on the TSA, and if there are problems and challenges in the workplace, I would love to hear about those because I want to do something about them.
NAYLOR: At the House hearing last week, Pistole was pressed by freshman republican Mo Brooks of Alabama to promise he would fire TSA workers who staged a strike or other job action.
Representative MO BROOKS (Republican, Alabama): If there is a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, should they engage in a work stoppage or slowdown, or should they engage in a strike, are you willing to fire them en masse? Yes or no?
Mr. PISTOLE: I am willing to, yes.
NAYLOR: But Republicans' efforts to prevent collective bargaining received a setback this week when the Senate voted along party lines to allow the process.
Democratic Senator Tom Harken of Iowa argued plenty of federal and local security agencies already allow their officers to negotiate a contract with no ill effects.
Senator TOM HARKEN (Democrat, Iowa): Border patrol personnel have collective bargaining rights. Immigration and customs officials have collective bargaining rights. Our Capitol police officers who protect us here have collective bargaining rights. Why should TSO's be any different.
NAYLOR: It's up to each TSA administrator to determine whether or not to allow collective bargaining. So Pistole's successor could rescind those rights, or for that matter expand them. Screeners have until mid-April to vote.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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