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BLOCK: The airport security line. And there could be some pretty big changes coming for the men and women who staff those checkpoints. Democratic control of Congress has revived efforts to give all 43,000 of them collective bargaining rights. The House has already voted for the change and the Senate could consider it soon. But the Bush administration is strongly opposed. It says it needs maximum flexibility to deal with aviation threats and union negotiations would get in the way.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Whenever he's at Jackson Evers International Airport in Mississippi, Congressman Bennie Thompson hears from screeners, often covertly.
BENNIE THOMPSON: I would get a note passed to me - please call me at home at night, but don't let anybody see me talking to you for fear of losing my job.
FESSLER: The complaints were many. There were allegations of security lapses and favoritism and that managers warned when undercover teams were coming to test security so the airport would do well.
THOMPSON: The screeners were tipped off that they were coming and in fact, they told them what clothes they would be wearing and what items that would, in fact, be put through the system to try to see whether or not they were doing their job.
FESSLER: The Transportation Security Administration says it investigated the allegations and found no wrongdoing, although the Homeland Security Department's Inspector General is still conducting an inquiry. But Thompson, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, says the real scandal is that the workers were afraid to raise their concerns. That's why he and other Democrats want to give screeners the same collective bargaining and whistleblower right enjoyed by other government employees.
A.J. Castilla is a screener at Logan International Airport in Boston and a member of the American Federation of Government Employees. He says the current situation hurts morale.
CASTILLA: The minute you say, hey I have a problem with how you do policy, suddenly you're blacklisted. You don't get promoted. You don't get a pay raise. You get letters of reprimand.
FESSLER: He says he always got good job evaluations at Logan until he joined 200 other screeners to call for an investigation into unfair labor practices.
CASTILLA: And suddenly I'm hauled into the office and I'm the worst employee in the airport.
KIP HAWLEY: On an individual basis, I'm sure there are legitimate complaints, as with any workforce.
FESSLER: Kip Hawley heads TSA. He says with 43,000 workers and a new agency, it's understandable there would be some problems. But Hawley says many of them have been fixed and worker satisfaction is on the rise. The agency's also turned around its unusually high attrition and injury rates and has new programs for pay raises and career advancement. TSA doesn't even call them screeners now. They're transportation security officers.
HAWLEY: We're no longer saying look this is a temporary job until you get a better job. We're saying this is a serious professional job. We're going to train you and give you a career.
FESSLER: Hawley thinks collective bargaining would be a step backwards. Even worse, he says, it could limit the agency's ability to move personnel around and try different responses to an ever-changing threat, such as last summer's liquid explosives plot. Hawley says that's exactly why Congress allowed the prohibition against unions when it created TSA right after the 9/11 attacks.
HAWLEY: The spirit of the 9/11 Commission was very much we need a nimble, quick, flexible workforce, and that is still the case.
CASTILLA: It's almost insulting, to tell you the truth.
FESSLER: A.J. Castilla says screeners of course would be flexible, even with a union, that they care about protecting airline passengers as much as anyone. But this debate over collective bargaining reflects a much broader split between the Bush administration and Democrats over the role of unions in government.
Republican John Mica charged on the House floor that Democrats were tossing their labor allies a bone by putting the provision on a bill to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
JOHN MICA: Nowhere in this 9/11 Commission does it say that we should give collective bargaining rights to airport screeners, to TSA personnel. Nowhere. We had a bipartisan agreement when we created TSA that we wouldn't do that and put us at risk.
FESSLER: But supporters of the chain say the bigger risk is leaving things as they are. The debate is expected to continue when the Senate takes up the measure in the coming weeks.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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