Pistole defends collective bargaining rights for TSA

Friday - 2/11/2011, 7:19am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Transportation Security Administration has a morale problem. Administrator John Pistole knows it, and is trying to do something about it.

TSA employees ranked it 220 out of 224 agencies in the 2010 annual Best Places to Work survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service.

Pistole told House Homeland Security subcommittee on Transportation Security members Thursday that granting employees the ability to vote to receive collective bargaining rights is one way he is trying to change the work environment. He said time and again at town hall meetings with employees and managers over the last two years, he heard about how morale is low and the working environment needs to be improved.

"What I found is a great deal of frustration with the lack of uniform consistency in the way we handle our personnel policies," Pistole said during the hearing on transportation security. "That was part of what informed my decision and judgments to allow them to vote. I think there are a lot of distractions among the workforce with these personnel issues that could be improved with better uniform consistency."

Pistole granted Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) the right to vote for union representation Feb. 4. He detailed the limited scope of what could be bargained for, including the performance management process, awards and recognition process and shift bids.

He said 13,000 of the 47,000 TSOs already are paying union dues without collective bargaining rights.

Pistole said TSA will follow the recommendations of the Federal Labor Relations Board. TSA will hold the vote starting March 9 through April 19.

TSOs will be able to vote electronically or by phone. In March, the FLRA will mail voter information packages to each eligible TSA voter, which will include instructions as well as a unique voter identification number and personal identification number.

TSA will notify employees of the election in the workplace; identify which employees are eligible to vote; and spell out how objections to the conduct of the election may be filed.

FLRA will tally the votes April 20 in Washington.

Legislation creating the TSA in 2001 excluded its employees from regulations that give other federal workers the right to union protections. But the law gives the administrator the option of allowing limited collective bargaining.

"It's like going through a cafeteria menu and saying 'I like this, I like this, and I don't want this,'" Pistole said. "So what's on the tray right now are just those items that I believe would not adversely affect security in anyway."

Pistole said collective bargaining doesn't include deployment, job qualifications, testing or discipline. And it does not change current regulations that already ban strikes or work slowdowns.

But Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) pushed Pistole to commit to firing any and all workers who do go on strike or have a work stoppage. Brooks said in 1981 air traffic controllers went on strike even though they weren't allowed to according to their collective bargaining agreement. President Reagan fired 11,000 workers for that illegal strike.

"I can't envision that in this construct because it's not traditional collective bargaining so there is no right to do that," Pistole said in response to Brooks' questions about a potential strike. "If an individual wants to risk losing their job by not showing up or doing a work slowdown, they would be subject to the normal disciplinary process, which could ultimately result in termination."

Pistole said he would fire TSOs en masse if they held an illegal strike.

Brooks and subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) also expressed concerns about Pistole's decision to allow collective bargaining and the impact on security at airports.

Pistole also received support from the Democrats on the subcommittee.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said the morale issue is a big one for employees and collective bargaining rights are needed for that reason.

Full committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said letting TSOs vote for union representation just makes sense.

"There already are people who have collective bargaining rights in the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection Officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Protective Service," Thompson said. "Also in the federal government, we have the Department of Defense police, U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, U.S. Marshals Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs Police as well as the U.S. Mint police. I hope some of the concerns about collective bargaining and belonging to a union can be put to rest because of that."

Despite these examples, some Republican lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would override Pistole's decision.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has sponsored a measure that would bar screeners from gaining union rights. And Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Pistole earlier this week demanding all documents relating to Pistole made the decision.

"I am concerned that due to your change in policy, TSA may need union approval to sign off on critical and swift adjustments to airport security protocols," Issa wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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