- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

A government employee union is taking the Bush administration to court to allow 56,000 newly federalized airport screeners to organize.

The suit was filed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

The suit filed Friday was in response to the administration's order Thursday that "mandatory collective bargaining is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism."

Bobby L. Harnage, federation president, said the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act ensures screeners can join unions and that retired Adm. James M. Loy, undersecretary of transportation for security, acted outside that jurisdiction.

The act was passed by Congress after the September 11 terrorist attacks and signed into law by President Bush on Nov. 19, 2001.

"TSA officials do not have the authority to deprive workers of their rights to join a labor union," Mr. Harnage said. "AFGE is going to vigorously fight on behalf of the 56,000 airport screeners throughout the U.S. to overturn this unlawful decision by Bush administration officials."

Adm. Loy said screeners have many of the same protections as other federal employees, including equal employment opportunity and whistleblower protection.

"Fighting terrorism demands a flexible work force that can rapidly respond to threats," Adm. Loy said in announcing his order. "That can mean changes in work assignments and other conditions of employment that are not compatible with the duty to bargain with labor unions."

Federation officials say the workers need union protection because of forced overtime, unscheduled shift changes, delayed paychecks and charges of sexual harassment. They say baggage handlers are working without protective equipment when searching for explosives.

Some employees are being transferred to airports two hours from home and are forced to work 60 or 70 hours per week, said Chuck Hobbie, deputy general counsel for the federation.

"It's all just a mess. This is why we believe employees need representation by unions," Mr. Hobbie said.

Dan Cronin, director of legal information for the National Right to Work Foundation, said the union is trying to "stuff their coffers" with 56,000 new dues payers.

"They are forcing the president to jump through all of these hoops in a time of crisis and are using this to get more dues," Mr. Cronin said.

Union dues depend on the location but average $15 a pay period, Mr. Hobbie said. A union member paid every two weeks would be charged $390 annually. The union would collect about $21 million a year if every screener joined.

There were a little more than a dozen employees when the act was signed into law. Today there are 64,000 employees, including the 56,000 screeners whose salaries range from $23,600 to $35,400 a year.

There are few requirements to be hired as a screener, which include the ability to read, speak and write in English; being a U.S. citizen; distinguishing colors and objects on screening equipment; handling luggage; conducting wand and pat-down searches; and being able to hear alarms and voices. Screeners must have a high school diploma or GED certificate and must pass background checks, including a criminal-records check.

Mr. Cronin said many problems can be attributed to the newness of the program.

"There is a period where things need to be straightened out. We all know that bureaucratic work takes time to iron all of this out," he said.

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