Meister: Union rights for airport screeners

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Airport screeners and other vital employees of the
Transportation Safety Agency should finally have the basic rights and protections they have so long needed and deserved

(Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.)

The underpaid, overworked and otherwise poorly treated airport screeners who are essential to air passenger safety may finally be winning their long struggle for the badly needed union rights guaranteed other federal employees.

There are more than 40,000 screeners –- a first line of defense against terrorism -- posted at X-ray machines, checkpoints and elsewhere in air terminals throughout the country. They work for the Transportation Safety Agency (TSA) that was set up in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 1, 2001.

Such related workers as federal border guards and immigration and Custom Service employees are unionized. But in 2003, President Bush denied union rights to screeners and other TSA employees on grounds that their unionization would somehow “threaten national security.”

A majority in the House and Senate voted in 2007 to restore the screeners’ union rights. But the congressional majority wasn’t large enough to overturn a veto threatened by the president, and the attempt was abandoned.

Denying the fundamental right of unionization to the screeners, as the United Nations’ International Labor Organization ruled, violates “core labor standards.”

The screeners’ need for unionization should be as obvious as the nation’s need for their invaluable service. Their complaints are widespread and numerous. They cite, for instance, inadequate pay, low morale, a high rate of workplace injuries, unfair promotion and scheduling policies, arbitrary work rules and high turnover rates.

The screeners’ hope for wining union rights rests primarily with President Obama, who voted as a senator to grant screeners union rights and promised during his presidential campaign to make granting them the rights “a priority for my administration.”

Winning congressional approval won’t be easy, but is also expected, despite stiff opposition expected to be led by a notably anti-labor Republican senator, John DeMint of South Carolina. He argues, much as George Bush had argued, that unionizing TSA employees would amount to putting air security and safety in the hands of those old right-wing bugaboos, “union bosses.”

Senator DeMint and his reactionary colleagues probably will lose their attempt to deprive some of our most deserving workers their basic rights. But they undoubtedly will cause some damage along the way to their ultimate defeat.

DeMint already has managed to stall Senate confirmation of Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Safety Agency and carry out the reforms sought by Obama and TSA‘s employees. He’s invoked Senate rules to postpone the vote on whether to confirm the president’s appointment of a well-regarded former FBI agent and assistant chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police, Erroll Southers, to run the agency.

In the meantime, two government employee unions are competing for the right to represent TSA employees once they are granted union rights. The competition undoubtedly will result in more and stronger employee demands for improved conditions as the two unions vie vigorously to represent them.

One of the unions is the largest of federal employee unions, the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, the other the 150,000-member National Treasury Union. But despite its much smaller size, the Treasury Union won three years ago in competing with the Federation of Government Employees to represent airport Customs and border protection officers.

The unions have been waging a vigorous campaign , signing up members, establishing union locals at airports nationwide, helping workers appeal unfair disciplinary actions, filing grievances against employer mistreatment and other actions. Both unions have promised to press hard for pay raises, better promotion policies and work rules and other matters important to TSA employees.

No matter which union wins, it’s certain that the airport screeners and other vital employees of the Transportation Safety Agency should finally have the important basic rights and protections they have so long needed and so long deserved.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister,com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.