- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano doesn’t have the answer, but the revelation Wednesday she has asked legal advisers whether she can grant collective-bargaining rights to airport screeners is giving hope to a union organizer.

In her first appearance before Congress since her confirmation last month, the House Homeland Security Committee asked Ms. Napolitano whether she will seek such authority.

“The answer to your question is that I’ve asked our general counsel’s office exactly that question, and I don’t have a response yet,” Ms. Napolitano said.

“But obviously, I appreciate that the valuable men and women who work - and some of these jobs are very difficult jobs in difficult settings, and I appreciate what they’re doing,” Ms. Napolitano said. “So we are looking at that right now from both a legal and a policy standpoint.”

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said Republicans insisted that when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created, its workers be precluded from collective-bargaining rights unionization.

“As you know from the surveys of the employees in Homeland Security, there are a lot of morale problems,” Mr. DeFazio said. “A lot of it goes to the management of the Bush administration, the misdirection, but some of it goes to the fact that they are denied these rights, which are made commonly available.”

Mr. DeFazio said he was recently reminded by a TSA employee “that we have an administration now that might be receptive to restoring their rights.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), one that could represent TSA workers, thinks the law is clear that Ms. Napolitano already has such authority.

“As things now stand, every day is a struggle for these vital front-line security employees, who work under an unfair pay system, face arbitrary management decision-making, deal with a lack of training and promotional opportunities, and confront other issues,” Ms. Kelley said.

“No wonder that employee morale in TSA is at rock-bottom and turnover is among the highest in government,” she said.

The ability to unionize “will provide TSA employees with a meaningful seat at the table where decisions impacting their day-to-day work lives are made,” Ms. Kelley said.

The union recommended to the Obama administration that collective-bargaining rights would move employees to the same pay system covering other federal employees and would stem high turnover and low morale.

“President Obama has indicated his support of collective-bargaining rights for TSA employees, and I would hope and expect that would happen in the very near future,” the NTEU chief said.

Lawmakers also questioned Ms. Napolitano about preliminary tests of full-body imaging scanning at 10 airports, including Baltimore, New York, Denver and Los Angeles. The technology allows screeners to look underneath clothing to spot weapons, but has drawn criticism from some privacy advocates.

However, Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, said that after undergoing hip-replacement surgery, he finds the screening method easier to maneuver.

“I think you should create an ‘I don’t care line.’ Many of us would rather go through that,” Mr. Lungren said.

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