- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

A labor union representing airport security screeners is preparing a lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to block thousands of layoffs.

“We feel that their reduction in work force procedures are seriously flawed and the best way to address it is in court,” said Peter Winch, national organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

The Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that handles labor issues for the government, ruled Monday that the union cannot represent the screeners in collective bargaining.

But union officials said the decision, which will be appealed, would not stop its lawsuit.

The union sought a ruling from the FLRA that would overturn TSA chief James Loy’s order in January forbidding collective bargaining by screeners. He said a union contract could restrict the agency’s ability to respond in the war on terror.

Collective bargaining refers to labor agreements in which a union negotiates a single contract for all its members.

TSA administrators have discretion to decide the terms and conditions of screeners’ employment, the FLRA ruled.

“We’ll still be able to represent them in the lawsuit,” Mr. Winch said. “We’ll be representing individual claimants. This doesn’t change anything.”

The AFGE says it representsscreeners at 20 airports nationwide, including all three major airports in the Washington area. Despite a lack of collective bargaining, the union represents workers in grievance procedures, workers’ compensation claims, discrimination issues and job-safety complaints.

Collective bargaining created a major dispute in Congress during debate on how to form the TSA, which occurred in November 2001.

“It’s regrettable that the [FLRA] does not see the connection between a high-performance work force and the right to bargain collectively over working conditions,” AFGE President Bobby Harnage Sr. said yesterday in a statement.

Congress cut the TSA’s budget this year because of a slumping economy and evidence at hearings indicating the agency was overstaffed. Lawmakers ordered the agency to reduce its full-time staff of screeners from 55,600 to 49,600.

The layoffs would reduce payroll by $32 million this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and $288 million next year.

The union says screeners are being laid off randomly, rather than based on traditional government standards that balance job performance, seniority and military veteran status.

At least part of the reason for the “random” layoffs is union busting, Mr. Winch said.

“There are examples of union busting all throughout TSA,” he said.

TSA officials denied allegations they are laying off employees for participating in the union.

“That’s pure nonsense,” spokesman Brian Turmail said.

The TSA does not oppose union representation, only collective bargaining, he said.

“Our screeners are welcome to join any membership organization of their choice,” Mr. Turmail said. The TSA has even offered to deduct AFGE dues from screeners’ paychecks.

He also said the TSA’s work force reductions follow a standard method that balances scores on a written exam with a test of whether screeners can correctly identify potential weapons on an X-ray screen. If they fail the first time, they may receive additional training and try again.

Screeners who score highest on the tests will retain their jobs. The lowest-scoring screeners are most likely to get laid off, Mr. Turmail said.

Any additional work force reductions at airports in the Washington area would be handled through attrition, he said.

AFGE organizers are collecting “declarations” from screeners to document violations of federal work force reduction procedures. Some of the declarations were taken from screeners at Ronald Reagan Washington National, Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International airports.

The union says the TSA should follow a federal point system that protects workers from layoffs first if they score high on job performance, then on seniority and veteran status. Job performance makes up the bulk of the criteria.

Laid-off screeners also should be offered other jobs if they are available, Mr. Winch said.

The union plans to file the lawsuit after it finishes gathering evidence.

“I think we’ll be filing it before Labor Day,” Mr. Winch said.

Kurt Kugelberg, a BWI screener, agreed some job cuts might be needed, but said union representation is important to protect screeners from a “buddy system” that determines career advancement.

“It’s like a little kingdom,” Mr. Kugelberg said, referring to managers who show favoritism to some screeners. “That’s how you get ahead.”