Nomination of Southers for TSA becomes a union issue

Dec. 23, 2009 -- Initially, Erroll Southers was headed to be a shoe-in to head up the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But then there was a political sticking point: Unions.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican representing the state of South Carolina, has objected to Southers' appointment, requesting that Southers clarify his position on collective bargaining for TSA workers. While DeMint* was requesting a clarification and objecting to Southers confirmation until such a clarification is provided, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman pointed to the improperly redacted document containing TSA Standard Operating Procedures as all the more reason that the TSA needed its leadership position filled.

Now, you have the National Treasury Employees Union (the NTEU -- yes, that's right -- the union representing treasury employees) getting in the mix. That union's president Colleen Kelley danced around the union issue and tried to pin the issue on a lack of leadership, much like Lieberman had already done. Kelley wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), that "the agency clearly is in need of a permanent leader who can being to resolve some of its pressing issues."

Presumably one of those pressing issues on the Kelley's list would be unionization. In fact, Kelley's NTEU is already organizing transportation security officer's (TSOs) into her union. Currently Kelley can organize TSOs as much as she likes, but that doesn’t mean they get much benefit. The TSA withholds the right to decide whether to participate in collective bargaining with its employees, so no matter how many organize, if the TSA leadership continues to say no to collective bargaining, then there really isn't much value to unionization of TSA employees. So while I may regularly trade "collective bargaining" for "unionization" in this column, please understand that the two are inextricably linked, and that by denying collective bargaining, the TSA is really fighting unionization. After all, a union without collective bargaining is like putting together a football team but not having any opposing teams willing to play you. There's just not much point to forming the team.

So while some try to put the issue of Southers' nomination as a simple case of the TSA needing leadership (in fact, this is the stance that one of our industry's journals has taken), the issue clearly is unionization, and the issue of unionization can't be swept under the table just because "we need leadership". No matter what side of the unionization fence you sit on, or whether you straddle the pickets, this is a serious issue. It relates to collective bargaining for a large group of employees and could provide job protection to those employees.

As a fence-sitter on this issue (I'm not afraid to admit it), I see a couple different sides to this equation.

On one side of the fence you see long hours and low morale and often low pay, and I do think that bargaining could help these problems. The last thing I want to see are TSOs who could care less about their jobs because the conditions are unbearable. When that happens, workers stop being as attentive to detail and our aviation security is weakened.

But on the other side of the equation, I see an agency that needs to remain flexible in order to do its job. If the employees gain too much power and control in the TSA, then I have to wonder whether TSA leadership would be able to keep the agency lean enough to quickly change policy and staffing to respond to new threats. Lest we all forget, the TSA has great power to put employees on leave or to fire them totally when it comes to breaches and security officers who are not doing their job. When you have unionization, that ability to hire and fire at will become a much greater challenge. Do you remember the case in 2006 where a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) refused to search passengers (claiming religious reasons), and then appealed his firing? Now imagine that same case when that TSO is a union member and that the union has established the rules on hiring and firing.

For all of this internal debate, the one thing I have to keep in mind is that allowance for collective bargaining has already occurred in other somewhat similar federal divisions, including the Border Patrol, federal protective officers and the U.S. Capitol Police. I don't see any indication that these organizations have been unable to do their jobs (and do their jobs well) because they have collective bargaining.

One thing is for clear, President Obama is heading the TSA toward collective bargaining. He wrote the following in an Oct. 20, 2008 letter to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees:

"Advocating for TSOs to receive collective bargaining rights and workplace protections will be a priority for my administration. It is unacceptable for TSOs to work under unfair rules and without workplace protections – this makes it more difficult for them to perform their jobs. Since 2001, TSA has had the unfettered ability to deny its workforce even the most basic labor rights and protections. ... Collective bargaining rights ensure that federal agencies run as effectively as possible and are able to focus on protecting our national security. Collective bargaining agreements also provide an excellent structure to address issues such as a fair promotion system, the scheduling of overtime, shift rotation, health and safety improvements, parking, child care and public transportation subsidies. By addressing these day-to-day issues in a manner that is both functional and fair, I believe the unacceptably high attrition rate of TSOs will improve and more TSOs will remain on the job resulting in the career, professional, and highly trained workforce the public and Congress demanded following the terrible events of September 11th."

So, while some may argue that leadership of the TSA is the issue here, they are only partially correct. The real issue is unionization and collective bargaining. Now the question is whether the Obama administration still has the clout to push collective bargaining onto the TSA or whether they will save their energies to fight other battles. I would bet they stick with this issue.

*[Of course, there could be questions about DeMint's own knowledge of jobs and job creation; his state has now hit a record unemployment high of 12.3 percent, which DeMint has squarely blamed on the federal government, saying in a recent press release from his office that "their liberal agenda is hurting the American people."]

Geoff Kohl, editor-in-chief, SecurityInfoWatch.comAbout the author: Geoff Kohl is editor-in-chief and associate publisher of, and has been covering the security industry for over five years, reporting on policies, technology and industry trends.