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Which Union Would Represent TSA?

By Ed O'Keefe

There's a battle brewing over which Federal workers' union will get to represent the approximately 43,000 Transportation Security Administration workers that protect American airports. (AP Photo)

Federal workers unions hope the Obama administration grants Transportation Security Administration employees collective bargaining rights and expanded worker protections in the early months of the new presidency. If that happens there is promise of a tough fight among those unions to represent the people who protect American airports.

It's expected that the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) will face off against the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), two groups that have already set up shop in several airports in anticipation of presidential and congressional action that would grant collective bargaining rights to transportation security officers (TSOs), reversing course on a Bush Administration position that was a major sticking point when the Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002.

Even though TSOs do not have collective bargaining rights, both AFGE and NTEU have signed up dues-paying employees at the local level and have chartered chapters (for NTEU) or locals (for AFGE), who then appoint and train officers to staff their local efforts and represent individual employees during work-related disputes with TSA.

The dispute between the two unions dates back to early 2007, when NTEU won the right to represent roughly 30,000 Customs and Border Protection employees. It was one of the largest union elections in Federal government history. Following the election, AFGE filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which eventually ruled that NTEU had the right to organize CBP workers.

This time around, the pool of workers is bigger and the stakes higher, with TSA's 43,000 employees adding significant numbers and political clout to whichever union wins out.

Both unions have on-the-ground representatives at some of the nation's busiest airports. NTEU has eight TSA chapters at Dallas/Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, Miami International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, El Paso International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and in New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport. By comparison, AFGE represents roughly 10,000 TSA employees in 22 locals spread out nationwide with plans to add more in the coming months.

A move to allow TSA workers to organize nationally would require a change in strategy for the groups.

John Gage
AFGE national president John Gage

"We're going for all of them," said AFGE national president John Gage. "We're going for a nationwide unit with a nationwide contract. It's the only way to do it." The union has been involved in TSA matters since the agency's creation following the 9/11 attacks when Congress did not grant collective bargaining rights to workers.

"NTEU or some of our competitors may try to go into an airport and organize one airport. That never works," Gage said, referring to the fact that his 600,000-member union is much larger than NTEU, which has approximately 150,000 members. "We're going to fight that. They're only doing that because that's all they have the resources for, they just haven't made the commitment to go for the rights of all these workers."

But NTEU also has its sights set on the TSA.

Colleen M. Kelley
NTEU national president Colleen M. Kelley

"NTEU is moving full speed ahead with its nationwide organizing efforts at the Transportation Security Administration," NTEU national president Colleen M. Kelley said in a statement. TSA is becoming a "feeder" workforce for CBP, Kelley said, because TSOs "see the rights, professionalism and fair treatment of CBP Officers and want the same level of respect and treatment."

"These employees need representation," Kelley said of TSOs. "They have a double digit attrition rate, they have the highest on-the-job injury rate of any federal workforce, they have a substandard pay system and they are denied basic fair treatment by their employer."

Gage expressed a similar sentiment: "I never could understand how everybody at the airport -- the pilots, the machinists, the flight attendants -- everybody's in a union and these people can't be."

Regardless of what happens, Gage is happy that come Jan. 20, his members will have a new boss.

"We're just so happy to be out from under [President Bush]. This has been a tough fight under the [current] administration."

"Federal employees have been and become very cynical. They see these administrations come and go," Gage said. "I think we're going to stand up this time and try to make this one different. To try to say that this change thing is for real. That the union can be an agent for change."

Both unions make strong arguments: AFGE has its size and connections to AFL-CIO, as well as long-term involvement in TSA issues. NTEU has experience representing federal workers at airports and boasts of its on-the-ground organizing efforts with the TSOs it already represents. Both share a commitment to unionize a big government agency lacking collective bargaining rights. Whoever wins will emerge as a strong voice for federal workers for years to come.

What do you think? Which union should win the right to organize TSA? Should the agency unionize at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 18, 2008; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Workplace Issues  
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I have been working closely with the TSA Officers at JFK for about two years now in their fight for representation. Not many people other than TSO's themselves understand the need for them to have collective bargaining rights and a union to represent them and fight on their behalf. As a CBP Officer at JFK and the President of NTEU Chapter 153 I have a lot of day to day contact with TSO's. I have heard the feed back and although you may say I am biased, the TSA employees have given me great feedback about the strength and success of NTEU Chapter 304 ( The NTEU TSA Chapter) This chapter has had, despite no collective bargaining rights and draconian anti union management, great success representing its members. The men and women who have stepped up to defend their co workers by forming this chapter have said NTEU is the TSA UNION. They saw the success of NTEU in the CBP workplace and said if NTEU could prevent DHS from taking CBP's collective bargaining rights away, that that's the union I want to fight for my rights. This battle cry was heard around the nation and soon NTEU was being approached by desperate, hard working employees wanting their voice to be heard. NTEU understands how DHS operates, and has in place an incredible network in airports around the country ready to assist our sisters and brothers in TSA. WE ARE IN THIS FIGHT TOGETHER!

NTEU is the union for TSA! NTEU IS THE DHS UNION!

Charlie Nolan
NTEU Chapter 153

Posted by: NTEUChapter153 | December 18, 2008 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Just what we need...another union "representing" another useless Federal agency whose only mission is to delay travellers.

Posted by: Disgusted9 | December 19, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

AFGE has been in front of this battle for over 6 years. They have the TSO's best interest at heart and have proven time and time again that they will fight for the rights of workers. They have a proven track record at representation and they are the largest federal employee union, and represent the largeest portion of employees in DHS. They have a presence at all 31 major hub airport's across the country and membership in many others. Together the TSO's will win their rights back with AFGE.

JT Chicago, Illinois

Posted by: jtChicago | December 23, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

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