- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

The nation's largest union for federal employees moved this week to represent passenger and baggage screeners at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, marking the first labor challenge for the new Department of Homeland Security.
The president can suspend labor agreements with federal employees involved in making the nation safe from terrorism, under the legislation passed this week by the House and Senate to create the Cabinet department.
The legislation includes "flexibility" provisions that allow the administration to hire, fire and promote homeland security employees, regardless of labor contracts. Applicants can be excluded from employment if department managers believe their backgrounds make them a security threat.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) filed a petition to represent the workers who screen baggage and passengers at BWI Airport.
"They are telling us that they have tremendous health and safety issues, a lot of pay issues and sexual harassment issues," AFGE national organizer Peter Winch said of the airport screeners.
Union officials said the filing with the Federal Labor Relations Authority was an opening move to organize workers throughout the 170,000-employee Department of Homeland Security.
The government employee union is trying to organize federal workers at the nation's 31 largest airports, which handle 70 percent of U.S. airline traffic. The union plans to file another petition next week to represent screeners at New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Mr. Winch said AFGE will file papers seeking to represent screeners at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport before the end of this year, and at Washington Dulles International Airport early next year.
The Transportation Security Administration, which supervises the screeners, is one of 22 agencies that will be consolidated under the umbrella of the new department.
Democrats' demands for union protections for homeland security workers delayed passage of the bill creating the department until after the Nov. 5 midterm election, possibly adding to Republican victories throughout the country. Labor is a key Democratic constituency.
"The only area of difference was whether they ought to have a right of appeal at some point down the road after they've been fired, to make sure it was for legitimate reasons, not political reasons," Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, said in a television interview days before Congress passed the homeland security bill. "I don't think you want to repeal these people's rights across the board."
Congress created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after the September 11 terrorist attacks to oversee security for transportation systems, including the screening of airline passengers and baggage.
The extent to which the Bush administration will try to block unions from organizing homeland security workers remains to be seen, Mr. Winch said.
"It was a vote we were not happy with at all," the union organizer said.
If its organizing efforts are thwarted, the union plans to form an association to represent homeland security workers on Capitol Hill. AFGE already represents more than 30,000 federal employees whose agencies are being included in the new department.
"We'll use whatever rights they have left," Mr. Winch said.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, TSA director, has been receptive in negotiations with the union, he said.
"Admiral Loy has treated us as a stakeholder so far," Mr. Winch said. "There's plenty of middle ground between their desire for flexibility and our desire for collective bargaining."
"TSA has not taken a position on the issue," spokeswoman Heather Rosenker said.
The Bush administration and Republican lawmakers won the labor flexibility provisions after arguing that union contracts could interfere with airport screening and other anti-terrorist security measures. Federal law already forbids government employees from striking.
Provisions of the new legislation that give the president authority to override union agreements are intended to preserve "the administration's pre-existing authorities to protect national security by suspending collective bargaining if and when appropriate," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
The AFGE argues that union representation would provide better security by ensuring employees are well-treated and trained, which also would improve morale.
"Good morale is good for security," Mr. Winch said.
Among the screeners' job complaints are long hours, he said. Some screeners are ordered to work 12 hours a day and for nearly two weeks with no days off.
Some female screeners have complained about pressure to date male supervisors who hired them, Mr. Winch said. Other screeners complain they are given only one pair of latex gloves a day, although they searching through dirty laundry to find sharp objects, he said.
TSA officials said many of the employee complaints are understandable in a new organization.
"In some airports, there have been some long hours," Miss Rosenker said. "That's because we're getting up and running. We're making adjustments so people aren't working overtime."
The other complaints about sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions would have to be checked out, she said.
"I'm not aware of them," she said.


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