The Magazine

Now with the Union Label

The TSA’s new uniforms.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By KATE HAVARD
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If you’re headed to the airport for the holidays, here are some tips to keep you off the Transportation Security Administration’s “naughty list”: Holiday puddings (even the figgy kind) are considered “gel-like” substances and must be carried in clear plastic containers of no more than 3.4 ounces. Cakes and pies are okay, but may be “subject to additional screening.” Snow globes must be no larger than “approximately tennis ball size” and fit into the quart-sized clear plastic bag with your other toiletries.

The TSA pats down an elderly man

Although their scanners can see through paper just as easily as they can see through your clothes, “wrapped gifts are allowed, but not encouraged.” If an alarm goes off, the TSA won’t hesitate to open your presents.

Oh, and amid all this holiday cheer, Christmas has come early for the TSA. On November 9, the baggage screeners ratified their first union contract, joining with the powerful public-sector union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Alas, this does not bode well for travelers. The contract is not aimed at making the lines go faster. Airport security procedures, including the ever-popular pat-down and the full-body scanner, remain the same. But you may notice that the latex-gloved strangers groping you in the name of national security have shiny new uniforms.

Under the new contract, the TSA uniform allowance has risen from $232 to $446 a year, courtesy of the taxpayers. Yet a representative from the TSA office of public affairs told me that the changes in the labor contract “will not impact the TSA budget.”

If that proves to be the case, they may want to share with the rest of the federal bureaucracy the alchemy by which TSA can nearly double the uniform budget for 44,000 federal security screeners without spending more money. But odds are, the spokesperson is just being optimistic. TSA’s budget has steadily expanded since its creation, from $4.7 billion in 2002 to $7.8 billion in 2012. 

A study commissioned by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee concludes that the TSA’s new labor agreement “provides few real benefits to TSA employees and only further diverts focus from TSA’s core functions of analyzing intelligence and ensuring the security of air travelers.”

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House committee, criticized TSA management for spending their time and energy regulating “tie tacks and tattoos” when they should have been “improving upon [their] poor track record of security blunders and missteps.” Mica pointed to what he called “significant security meltdowns” that recently occurred under TSA’s watch.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security released a report revealing that TSA officers at Honolulu International Airport habitually failed to screen checked baggage for explosives​—​sometimes even clearing bags without opening them. In the aftermath, TSA fired 28 employees and suspended 15. Similar problems have flared up at airports in Newark, Charlotte, and Orlando.

Though each incident is troubling in itself, at least the TSA was able to respond quickly. Under the new labor contract, that could change.

“Any time you put a contractual situation in there where changes have to be negotiated, you’re going to slow things down even more,” says Daniel R. Moll, one of the authors of the House study. 

For this reason, the TSA once prohibited collective bargaining. In 2003, a senior TSA official issued an order barring such a move because it was “not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism.”

However, in 2011, Obama-appointed TSA administrator John Pistole reversed the order and announced that bargaining collectively would be allowed. He assured the public that the labor negotiations would not affect security.

The TSA’s website published a fact sheet in favor of unionization which asserted, “Bargaining would not be allowed on security policies, procedures or the deployment of security personnel or equipment, pay, pensions and any form of compensation, proficiency testing, job qualifications or discipline standards.”

However, once the union negotiations began, things started to change.One of the principal changes negotiated in the contract is an overhaul of the TSA’s pay for performance system. Bidding for vacation time will be based on seniority. Standards have been established for the temperature of the work environment and the visibility of tattoos. (For the curious: “Tattoos must be .  .  . not visible to the general public. When an employee is wearing a short sleeve shirt, tattoos may be covered by a plain, single- colored royal blue acceptable band or sports sleeve that does not detract from the uniform.”) And just in case there’s a problem, TSA will allow an employee “to serve on official time on a full-time basis for the Union.” The TSA is to provide this employee with a workspace, if possible, at the airport, “for easy access to employees.”

None of these changes seem likely to make life easier for passengers. And, as critics point out, TSA’s efficiency and the public’s trust in the agency aren’t just about convenience. These are also security issues.

“The FBI wouldn’t be allowed to unionize, for security reasons,” says Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for National Right to Work. “We’re told that the TSA is supposed to be out there on the front lines of national security. They should seek to minimize any potential risk, not to introduce it by adding a whole new bureaucracy.”

“Ultimately, the power of the union is to strike,” Semmens says. “Just because a strike is illegal doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It’s happened before, and amnesty for striking just becomes another bargaining chip in the negotiations.”

The unionization of the TSA and the collective bargaining agreement is being hailed as a historic win for public-sector unions. And it’s a big win for the AFGE in particular, which previously had 250,000 members. That means it’s also a big win for the Democrats.

This year, AFGE’s political action committee spent about half a million dollars supporting Democratic candidates like Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Rep. Shelley Berkley. AFGE members fork over $14 to $16 per paycheck to the union. Now that they’ve added the TSA screeners, they stand to net an additional $16 million a year.

In effect, you’ll now be giving Democrats a boost every time you fly. Just something to ponder as you enjoy your pre-holiday pat-down.

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.


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