Airport security screeners pushing for full union rights cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday as the Senate rejected a Republican-authored proposal that would have barred them from collective bargaining.
The move — a victory for the Obama administration and organized labor — allows Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees to proceed with an election scheduled to begin next month on whether to let a union represent them in collective-bargaining cases.
The Senate measure failed on a 47-51 vote, falling 13 votes shy of the 60 needed for passage. The proposal was an amendment to a larger Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill that calls for updating the nation’s aging air traffic control navigation system, which is expected to have a Senate vote in the coming days.
TSA was created as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Federal law gives the White House authority to decide whether to let unions collectively bargain on behalf of TSA employees. The George W. Bush administration denied that right.
But the Obama administration has pushed ahead with collective bargaining, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority in November decided that 40,000 TSA employees will be allowed to vote on union representation. Balloting is tentatively scheduled for March 9 through April 19.
Under the proposed rules, collective bargaining would be allowed for work force matters but not for employee pay issues. The rules would still bar TSA workers from striking.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who sponsored the amendment to counter the administration’s push to loosen TSA employee restrictions, said giving TSA workers collective-bargaining rights could hamper national security by forcing the agency to negotiate with a union.
The senator added that the president was “intent on doling out rewards to campaign supporters” by moving to reverse the Bush-era policy on TSA employees.
Supporters of collective-bargaining power for TSA workers contend it’s a matter of fairness. They say that other federal law enforcers, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents, already have such rights.
Easing TSA unionizing restrictions would go a long way to improve low morale and reduce employee turnover at the agency, said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat.
“Now more than ever, workers need the basic protections that our laws provide,” he said. “The last thing we need to do is take a step backward and make working people even more vulnerable than they are today.”
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a measure that would make it a federal crime to misuse images recorded from full-body scanners used at airport security checkpoints.
The measure, also an amendment to the FAA bill, would bar any person with access to the scanned body images — whether TSA personnel or the public — from photographing or disseminating those images.