Monday, May 19, 2003

Airport Screeners Fight to Organize Union, Threaten National Security. Oh My!

This article from the Orlando Sentinel describes Airport screeners efforts to build a union and eventually get collective bargaining rights despite the Administration's insistence that unions and homeland security are incompatible.
The opening salvo was fired in January by TSA chief James Loy, when he forbade screeners access to collective bargaining. That was followed by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its absorption of tens of thousands of civil service workers, who were offered only a one-year guarantee that their union rights would be preserved. And now the Department of Defense is asking Congress for unprecedented authority to hire, fire and promote its 746,000 civilian workers.

The administration couches everything in national security terms, saying it wants to create a nimble work force capable of responding to today's threats. But union leaders call it thinly veiled union busting.

"The part that really frustrates me is that they are lying to the public. They have all the flexibility they need under the current law," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 government workers.
Although screeners are allowed to join AFGE, they aren't allowed to bargain. Screeners talk about how they are being mistreated and claim they are being harassed for organizing activities.
Among the problems cited in Orlando and other airports: Schedules are inconsistent from week to week, and sometimes even day to day; paychecks are lost or wrong; employees are often denied breaks whenever there is a shortage of workers; and screeners who used to work for private screening companies are given first shot at promotions.

And they say those who complain about working conditions often are harassed by supervisors -- including being given less desirable schedules or denied transfers.

"The way we are treated -- it's always negative," said Marzke, who thinks his union activism has made him a target.

Marzke was one of 13 screeners who made a trek to Washington, D.C., in March to officially join the union and take part in a news conference. Immediately afterward, he started having trouble with his pay -- including missing two consecutive paychecks.

"I could only assume it was retribution for my union activities," Marzke said.


Nationwide, screeners are complaining about many of the same things, though there are issues of more importance to specific locations.

At Boston, for example, union activist Dennis Cullity is worried about the lack of radiation-detection badges -- they track cumulative exposure -- for screeners who operate X-ray machines. Such badges are worn by the technicians who come in to repair the machines, he said.

"But we're with the machines eight hours a day and we don't get to wear them," Cullity said. "If they are wearing them, why aren't we?"

In Los Angeles, a hub for flights to and from Asia, screeners complain about not being allowed to wear masks to ward against the sometimes fatal respiratory disease SARS. But also, screeners want to see less chaotic scheduling.
But less chaotic scheduling would clearly threaten the security of the homeland, according to Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation,* a conservative think tank.
With unions would come new workplace rules that could make it harder for managers to respond to sudden threats. The TSA likes to point to its rapid mobilization of screeners around New Year's Day, when intelligence suggested terrorists were planning to sneak shoe-bombs aboard U.S. jetliners.

"You want to have that level of flexibility. And that's going to be difficult to preserve if the union takes hold," Poole said....

Even if they can't strike, union workers could use other tactics, including sick-outs and work slowdowns, to apply pressure during contract negotiations, said Charles Slepian, an aviation security expert with the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center.

"We can't start messing around with the aviation industry," Slepian said.
Well, all I can say is that it's a good thing there weren't any of those union members involved in 9/11 events. Imagine what a mess that would have been.

*Reason Foundation on Bush's Government Privatization Proposal: "In an exciting development for privatization advocates, the Bush Administration announced plans to privatize 850,000 government jobs, almost half of the federal work force. The decision is a powerful endorsement of Reason’s decades of privatization work....Reason Executive Director Adrian Moore and Senior Fellow Carl DeMaio provided research and strategic guidance in formulating the Agenda, and are working closely with OMB to ensure its smooth implementation."