WASHINGTON -- Launching a new battle with organized labor, the Bush administration said Thursday it will deny 56,000 federal airport security screeners the right to negotiate for better working conditions and higher pay.
"Mandatory collective bargaining is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism," James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said in an order issued by the administration.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which already represents thousands of civilian workers in the Department of Defense, called the action illegal and said it plans to file suit in federal court.
The White House already has jolted labor by announcing it will consider plans to shift as many as 850,000 federal jobs to private contractors.
As the most prominent federal union, AFGE is in the middle of a national drive to organize airport screeners, who represent the largest addition in years to the federal work force. The union has filed petitions for elections on behalf of workers at New York- and Washington-area airports.
"This appears to be an attempt to shut down our ability to organize and represent these workers," said Beth Moten, the union's legislative director. "The bottom line is we're going to continue to organize these workers. We are not going to give up. These people deserve a voice."
Some screeners have complained of unpredictable schedules, long workdays and payroll glitches that have resulted in not being paid for overtime or no paycheck at all.
"Workers are calling us from airports all over the country, saying they want a union to come help," said William Lyons, a national organizer for AFGE, which represents 650,000 of 1.8 million federal workers. The Transportation Security Administration's order is "preemptive union busting," Lyons said.
The TSA denies that there is widespread dissatisfaction among screeners. "We are seeing a very low attrition rate of about 3%," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the agency.
If a union gets involved in setting schedules, the TSA might lose the agility to meet threats of a terrorist attack, he said.
"We want to make sure we have the flexibility to change people's schedules in response to changing security threats," Turmail said. Over the New Year's holiday, the TSA deployed hundreds of additional screeners to check passengers' shoes after the agency received new shoe-bomb warnings.
Contrary to the union's assertions, Turmail said the aviation security law passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gives the agency the authority to deny collective bargaining rights to its workers. However, employees are still protected by federal laws that forbid racial and other forms of discrimination. The TSA also has regulations to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation.
As an alternative to a union, TSA chief Loy said employees will be able to take complaints to an ombudsman, who will be part of an internal program to address workers' problems.
But Lyons, the AFGE organizer, said such programs do not provide true checks and balances. A union, he said, can publicize security breaches or misconduct by agency managers without fear of retaliation.
"I talked to one young lady who had worked 21 straight hours, and I wonder what kind of security she was able to provide at that point," Lyons said. "TSA is afraid that with the voice of a union, these problems will be brought to public attention."