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Will TSA Unionization Jeopardize Air Safety?

From FDR to Reagan, history suggests the answer is yes.

by
Matt Patterson

Bio

February 24, 2011 - 12:18 am

I don’t know about you, but when I see a slow, rude Transportation Security Administration agent going through granny’s purse at airport security, I think to myself: “What the TSA needs is more bureaucracy — if only they were unionized!”

Well, we might get our wish.

While the TSA was created in 2001 with legislation excluding its workers from union-rights regulations granted to other federal employees, the administrator does have the authority to allow for some collective bargaining. Current TSA chief John Pistole has decided to do just that, giving some 40,000 TSA screeners collective bargaining rights on “non-security employment issues,” such as shift scheduling and vacation time.

Yet some lawmakers are worried that even partial unionization will result in a more sclerotic  institution that will jeopardize air-travel security. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote pointedly to Pistole, “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.”

The concern is not a trivial one. The dangers of public employee unions — whose strikes and work stoppages have the capacity to imperil the average citizens who depend on their services — have long been debated.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt, otherwise a storied hero of the labor movement, warned, “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service” — because a “strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”

Unthinkable and intolerable — that’s exactly what Ronald Reagan thought when he fired the 11,000 air traffic controllers engaging in a dangerous and illegal strike in 1981.

For his part, Pistole assures lawmakers that he “won’t allow anything to happen that will adversely affect security,” and even says he would follow Reagan’s example and consider firing TSA workers who overstepped their bounds. Pistole points out that his decision does nothing to alter current regulations against work stoppages. But some are afraid even a little taste of unionization will encourage a hunger for more — more compensation, more benefits, more time off, more authority to say “no” to the employer.

Certainly, that is the history of labor unions, who have never settled for just a little power. While noting that Pistole’s decision places strict limits on what TSA agents may collectively bargain for, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala) rightly asks: “How do we know that won’t be expanded at some point in the future to include many other items?”

Back in 2001, some wondered if the creation of a vast new government agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and yet another sprawling security bureaucracy, the TSA, was really the answer to America’s security issues. After all, the national defense and intelligence communities are already comprised of dozens of agencies notoriously poor at communicating with each other and amongst themselves. And none of them prevented the September 11 attacks. Now, the door has been opened to make the TSA as lazy and unresponsive as other unionized federal employees, like those in the Post Office.

From March 9th to April 19th, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union will compete in an election for the right to represent TSA workers.  A loss for both would be a tremendous win for America’s weary air travelers.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Matt Patterson is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the Capital Research Center.
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