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"Call to Expand Screener Union Rights Could Derail Antiterror Bill"



Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Call to Expand Union Rights Could Derail Antiterror Bill 
By ERIC LIPTON
The New York (NY) Times


WASHINGTON, - Democrats in Congress are pushing to extend union protection
to 43,000 federal airport security workers, reviving a debate that stalled
the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and could now derail
broad antiterrorism legislation. 

The proposal has provoked opposition from Senate Republicans and the Bush
administration. It is the latest in a series of labor-related fights in
Washington as Democrats try to use their new majority to push long-delayed
proposals that benefit rank-and-file workers, like increasing the minimum
wage.

White House officials made clear on Tuesday that President Bush was prepared
to veto a bill that enacted recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission if
the provision granting Transportation Security Administration workers
collective bargaining rights was not removed.

"Existing authority permits T.S.A. the flexibility to manage and deploy
their work force," Scott Stanzel, the White House deputy press secretary,
said. "We do think that it is important that T.S.A. maintain that
flexibility for personnel performing key homeland security roles."

In a letter sent Tuesday to the White House, Senator Jim DeMint, Republican
of South Carolina, and 35 other Senate Republicans said they were prepared,
if necessary, to sustain a veto.

Security administration officers are already allowed to join a union. But
few do, as current federal law does not permit the union to bargain on their
behalf to contest workplace assignments, file grievances or represent them
in disciplinary matters. Backers of the measure say giving the T.S.A.
workers broader rights does not create security problems.

"There's no good reason to deny these rights to these people," Senator
Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, said Tuesday, as the Senate
took up the matter. 

What collective bargaining rights Department of Homeland Security employees
should have has been under dispute since shortly after the 2001 attacks.

The disagreement so divided Congress in 2002 that for months it prevented
passage of the bill to create the department. Republicans successfully used
the delay, for which they blamed Democrats, to help defeat Senator Max
Cleland, the incumbent Democrat of Georgia, that year, openly questioning
his commitment to fight terrorism.

Republicans ultimately prevailed, both with T.S.A., which initially was part
of the Department of Transportation, and with Homeland Security, which has
since taken over.

But union leaders have been pushing ever since to reassert bargaining rights
for department employees.

Union leaders say airport screeners are frequently required to work
unscheduled overtime, suffer high injury and illness rates - nearly 30
percent compared with 5 percent for all federal employees - and have an
attrition rate 10 times as high as the federal average.

"How safe is the public if officers who see security breaches that result
from mismanagement cannot disclose that because they fear they could be
fired?" said Mark D. Roth of the American Federation of Government
Employees.

Under the proposal, the security officers would not have the right to
strike, and the union would not have the power to negotiate wages. But it
would be authorized to bargain on their behalf to establish work rules to
govern overtime and temporary transfers, and to protect them if they file a
grievance.

Union officials said that T.S.A., under the proposal, would still have the
power, in emergencies, to change work assignments. But Kip Hawley, the
security agency's administrator, said such shifts were necessary not just in
emergencies but when routine events like weather delays required work
reassignments or overtime.

"We require an infinitely flexible security regime that allows us to change
what we do and where we do it," Mr. Hawley said, adding that hiring staff
members to handle union relations would cost $160 million.

The debate over the collective bargaining rights is just one of several
points of contention expected to surface as the Senate takes up its version
of the Sept. 11 Commission bill. House Democrats passed their own version in
January.

House Democrats, who also included a provision granting collective
bargaining rights to airport screeners, have language in their bill that
would mandate inspection of all ship containers headed to the United States
from overseas, a provision that the Bush administration and many Republicans
oppose. A push by Democrats is expected in the coming week to add such
language to the Senate bill.

The Senate bill is also likely to include measures intended to increase rail
and transit security. And there may be an effort, also opposed by the Bush
administration, to delay a 2008 mandate that the states begin to issue a
standardized, tamper-proof driver's license. 

Officials in many states have said they will not be ready in time and that
the federal government should cover the cost of issuing the new licenses.

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