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TSA Allows Unionization, But Not on Pay and Benefits

One area of the FAA authorization bill that has caused significant debate in the Senate concerns worker rules. An amendment yesterday that went down would have limiting Davis-Bacon “prevailing wage” rules in the airport construction projects authorized by the bill (noticeably, Mark Kirk and Lisa Murkowski voted with the Democrats on that one). Rand Paul offered an amendment to restrict flight attendants air crew from obtaining workplace safety protections under OSHA for the first time; that will probably also go down. And the bill itself does not include a provision opposed by FedEx that would have made it easier for their employees to collectively bargain.

So there are labor wins and losses in the bill. But in a related story, the TSA will allow collective bargaining among its 40,000 security personnel. However, this is also only a partial victory, since pay will not be included in the discussions:

John S. Pistole, the former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who has served as head of the transportation agency since last June, announced Friday that he would used the power granted to him by Congress to authorize collective bargaining by airport security personnel on a limited set of topics, including rules governing who gets priorities for vacation time and shift assignments, how workplace transfers take place and how employees are recognized for commendable work. The negotiations will take place on a national level, not with state or local union affiliates.

The nation’s security officers are tentatively scheduled to vote in early March for one of two unions that have competed for the right to represent them, or not to have a union at all. But if they choose a union, they will not be able to turn to it to bargain on their behalf for such traditionally negotiated topics as pay, retirement benefits, job qualification rules, disciplinary standards or issues related to security procedures, like what security equipment they must use or when and where they are deployed.

This would allow the agency — a division of the Department of Homeland Security — to rapidly reassign security officers in response to a particular threat or to change security procedures or equipment without having to consult collective bargaining rules, an agency official said.

The AFL-CIO is pretty pleased with the deal. In a statement, President Rich Trumka said that “Today’s announcement is welcome news for the 40,000 working men and women of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and for all air travelers. Allowing Transportation Security Officers to exercise their right to come together to bargain collectively will improve their lives and enhance all air travelers’ experience and safety.” Certainly, this bodes well for the safety of the workplace among TSA workers. But if they cannot collectively bargain on pay and benefits, and they cannot strike or have any work-related slowdowns, exactly how robust an agreement is this?

This is a small advance for labor, proven by the fact that Republicans are immediately trying to use the FAA bill to roll it back. In the Senate, Roger Wicker has introduced legislation that would prohibit TSA unionization. But the emphasis has to go on the word “small.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen