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Reaction to New TSA Nominee Avoids Bargaining Issue

March 9, 2010

Both the Obama administration and a Republican senator who blocked its previous choice to head the Transportation Security Administration regarding concerns about unionization policy are praising the military and intelligence credentials of the new nominee, retired Army Gen. Robert Harding.

The White House announced Monday, March 8, that President Barack Obama has nominated Harding to be assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security overseeing the TSA.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, placed a hold on Obama’s previous selection, Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, because DeMint worried that Southers would allow collective bargaining for TSA workers.

DeMint didn’t mention the topic in a statement about Harding that he released after the nomination was announced.

“He’s had a distinguished career in the Army and I’m interested to hear how his military experience would inform his leadership of our nation’s transportation security,” DeMint said.

Republicans also raised objections to Southers because he allegedly misused a federal database to pursue a personal matter involving his marriage.

Obama called for the Senate to confirm Harding quickly.

“I am confident that Bob’s talent and expertise will make him a tremendous asset in our ongoing efforts to bolster security and screening measures at our airports,” Obama said.

The agency, which protects the nation’s airports, railroads, ports and mass transit systems, employs about 40,000 people. The most visible TSA staff members are the security officers who work as screeners at 450 airports across the nation.

It’s not clear whether Harding will support TSA collective bargaining, an issue that has become an important item on the organized labor agenda.

The American Federation of Government Employees filed a petition in late February with the Federal Labor Relations Authority calling for a nationwide union election to determine exclusive representation for TSA workers.

Currently, the TSA workforce is represented by the AFGE and other unions but is prohibited by federal law from engaging in collective bargaining. The same restriction applies to other security positions such as FBI and CIA agents.

DeMint has argued that allowing collective bargaining for transportation security officers would limit the government’s flexibility to respond to security threats, such as the attempted bombing of a plane headed to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.

The head of a large federal union, however, asserted that TSA was being undermined by a faulty pay system and weak worker protections.

“When TSA was created in late 2001, federalizing air travel screening work, the goal was to develop a stable, professional security workforce,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “While TSA employees work diligently and skillfully, achieving that goal has been out of their reach due to serious workplace issues that erode their morale and contribute to the high turnover that continues to plague the agency.”

Both the NTEU and AFGE have vowed to secure collective bargaining rights for TSA workers. It’s likely that Harding will support the effort, according to one observer.

“I’m pretty sure any nominee would because it’s so crucial to [the union] constituency,” said Linda Brooks Rix, co-CEO of Avue Technologies Corp., an HR technology provider for the federal government.

Permitting collective bargaining at the TSA could be beneficial, Rix said, because it would help employees better communicate their concerns.

“It provides the unified voice,” Rix said. “It’s more efficient from a management standpoint.”

At a February AFGE rally, a leader of the nation’s air traffic controllers asserted that unionization hasn’t made takeoffs and landings dangerous.

“We are living proof that being a union member enhances the safety of this country,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.  

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