DHS considering giving TSA employees union rights

Thursday - 2/26/2009, 6:50am EST

WFED's Jason Miller reports

Review part of Napolitano's priorities for department

Download mp3

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
FederalNewsRadio

The Homeland Security Department's general counsel is reviewing the legal and policy authorities to give Transportation Security Administration employees collective bargaining rights.

DHS secretary Janet Napolitano told House lawmakers Wednesday the review is underway and no decision has been made yet.

But Napolitano's answer during her first Capitol Hill appearance since she was confirmed Jan. 20 is a striking change from the Bush administration policies for TSA workers.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says the law that created TSA gave the authority to the agency's administrator. Over the past eight years, no administrator let employees unionize, she says.

"I had hoped some formal action was being considered," Kelley says. "This is good sign. NTEU believes the law is clear and the DHS secretary has the authority to give TSA workers collective bargaining rights."

Kelley says NTEU still will push for a change in the law so these rights could not be pulled back in the future. She adds that if DHS grants TSA employees collective bargaining rights, the employees would elect a union to represent them.

TSA employee rights were one of a handful of areas in which Napolitano offered specifics during her testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee.

DHS still is creating reports to meet the requirements under the 20 action directives Napolitano issued in her first month. During the hearing, she offered few specifics about her long term plans, but did highlight several priorities.

She tells lawmakers that she is looking at number of issues with a "fresh set of eyes," including immigration, FEMA's reaction during disasters and information sharing with state and local governments.

"A key challenge for us is to share information with state and local governments better and how we get information back from them," she says.

Napolitano adds that she will address a state fusion center conference in March where she will outline her plans to improve how DHS works with these law enforcement information sharing organizations.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) urges Napolitano to choose a policeman or woman to head DHS's Intelligence and Analysis component.

"The problem is not forcing information down, but getting it to the best person who will discover the next terrorist attack," she says.

Several lawmakers also discussed whether FEMA should be moved out of DHS. Most Democrats were not in favor of changing the DHS structure.

Napolitano, however, did not offer an opinion. She says she had not discussed the issue with President Barack Obama yet.

"There are many efficiencies that could be gained by keeping FEMA where it is now," she says. "But if FEMA has good leadership and good management, where it resides is less of an issue."

Several lawmakers expressed the need to consolidate congressional jurisdiction over DHS.

"You could testify before 80-90 committees and we believe this committee should be the main one," says Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee. "Any morale support you could give, we would appreciate it."

Napolitano did not offer an opinion again, but listed how often DHS testified during the last session of Congress. She says DHS officials appeared before the Homeland Security Committee 126 times; before other authorizing committees 111 times; and before the appropriations committees 32 times.

"This is the only 9/11 Commission recommendations that has not been implemented," she says.

Napolitano offered the first insight into the administration's 60-day cybersecurity review.

"The [White House] is doing a governmentwide review looking at what we need to do to reduce the number of portals of entry into our networks, to reduce the number of intrusions and how we should respond to these intrusions," she says. "The private sector also are key partners…I've instructed our cybersecurity folks to reach out to the private sector because they have to be part of the solution."

Napolitano also gave an update on the Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC) program.

She says 920,000 of the 1.1 million port workers either have cards or are in the process of receiving cards. Only eight or nine ports have not implemented TWIC, including some of the largest ones in the country, Long Beach and Los Angeles, Calif.

"TWIC is on our radar," Napolitano says. "I have daily questions about TWIC to our program people."

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) says she will hold a hearing in April on DHS's progress in implementing TWIC. Sanchez is the chairwoman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism.