ASPEN, Colo. — Transportation Security Administration chief John S. Pistole on Thursday welcomed the controversial unionization of his agency's 47,000 airport screeners.
"I think collective bargaining at the national level ... will help in things completely unrelated to the security aspect," such as consistency of management standards, Mr. Pistole told the Aspen Security Forum.
He said that at employee town halls at airports across the country, he had been "hearing frustrations from front-line officers about the lack of consistency" from their management on issues such as performance feedback or how to wear their uniforms.
When he took over TSA in 2009, Mr. Pistole added, "A lot of people don't realize — there were already 13,000 [screeners] paying dues to one of two unions, without any collective-bargaining authority, so there was a frustration" about that, too.
Collective bargaining, he noted, would only cover "nonsecurity employment issues" and would specifically exclude any topics that might affect security, such as security procedures, the deployment of personnel or equipment, testing and qualifications for screeners, disciplinary issues, and pay and pensions.
He added that in February, when he allowed the vote on collective bargaining, an election for TSA workers to choose a union had already been ordered by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. To hold such a ballot and allow staff to choose a union to represent them exclusively, without granting collective-bargaining authority to the union they picked, "would make no sense," he concluded.
The vote took place in March and of the 19,000 who voted, only 3,000 voted against having a union represent them. Of the 28,000 or so screeners who didn't vote, Mr. Pistole said, "I don't know what they thought about the issue."
The move has proved controversial on Capitol Hill, where critics argue that, as a security agency, the TSA should be like the CIA, FBI or Secret Service, none of which allows collective bargaining.
Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over TSA, criticized Mr. Pistole's comments.
"Even with collective bargaining, frustrated TSA employees will still be forced to deal with a dysfunctional, top-heavy federal agency, with 3,800 bureaucrats in Washington making an average of $105,000 per year. The only solution to TSA's many problems is a dramatic overhaul of the agency," he said Thursday.
Others have also criticized the move. "Collective bargaining is inherently adversarial," according to the Heritage Foundation's James Sherk. "Pitting employees and employers against each other at the bargaining table fosters attitudes of 'labor versus management' that often leads to strikes and job actions."
But Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, welcomed Mr. Pistole's comments.
"Collective-bargaining rights can actually enhance workforce productivity, morale, and TSAs mission without diminishing our security. TSA made that determination when the issue was studied. There was a decision, there was an election, there was a winner. Its a settled matter," said Mr. Thompson, whose panel oversees the TSA's parent agency.
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