December 3rd, 2009
08:23 AM ET
9 years ago

Senator blocks TSA confirmation over union dispute

Washington (CNN)–The nation's 50,000 airport baggage screeners - upgraded to "federal transportation officers" under the Bush administration - could get another title under the Obama administration: Union members.

But not without a fight.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, is blocking the confirmation of Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration, saying Southers would permit screeners to seek full union representation, a move DeMint says would weaken the effectiveness of the agency.

Unionizing baggage screeners would make the agency "much less flexible" in making quick changes, such as those made overnight in August of 2006 when the British uncovered a plot to destroy planes using liquid bombs, DeMint said.

Union leaders counter that unionization could improve national security by improving screener morale and working conditions.

DeMint's decision to block Southers' nomination is the most visible sign of a debate that has simmered since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. When the agency was formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress specifically prevented its workers from seeking full union representation, saying the agency needed to be nimble to respond to threats.

Later, the government opted to allow screeners to join unions, but without "collective bargaining," limiting its ability to influence changes.

In 2008, just two weeks before the presidential election, candidate Barack Obama gave his support to union rights for screeners.

His promise was unequivocal. "If I am elected president, I will work to ensure that TSOs (transportation security officers) have collective bargaining rights and a voice at work to address issues that arise locally and nationally," Obama wrote in a letter to John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees(AFGE).

So when Obama nominated Los Angeles International Airport police department official Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration this summer, leaders of two government unions praised the announcement, even though Southers was quiet on the issue of unionization.

"The question of bargaining rights at TSA is not a matter of 'if' but when," Gage wrote in a September letter applauding the choice.

Giving full union rights to baggage screeners is "a terrible idea," James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation said Wednesday.

"Unionism and collective bargaining bring with it all sorts of inefficiencies. If you want to make any changes to your business procedures you have to spend months negotiating them first. The TSA doesn't have the luxury of months before they change their security screenings," Sherk said.

Collective bargaining "puts sand in the gears" of government, he said.

Gage calls claims that unionization will hurt national security "disingenuous and hypocritical."

"No one talks about our two officers - two union members - who took down the shooter at Fort Hood. There was nothing in their union membership that stopped them from doing their duties," Gage said. "People who insinuate that being a union member has a nation security implication are just totally wrong."

Two screeners contacted by CNN - both AFGE members - also said collective bargaining would not impact security.

"I took an oath to uphold my position," said Cris Soulia, president of AFGE Local 1234 and a screener in San Diego. "The job always comes first."

Soulia said screeners would follow emergency contingencies. "We can sit back after the fact and say, 'Hey, did you do it right?' But our mission is to keep the public safe. I'm there to keep passengers safe."

A.J. Castilla, an AFGE union representative in Boston, said he hopes Obama appoints Southers during the congressional recess.

"We're tired of sitting at the back of the bus, and I think next year we won't have to," he said.

DeMint said he is holding up Southers' nomination because "we need to make the point to the American people that this administration is more about politics than security."

"It's all about politics - pay-back to the unions," he said.

DeMint said Southers has been evasive about whether he supports unionization of baggage screeners. In a letter to DeMint, Southers said he would not support "any system ... that would potentially compromise the safety and security of the flying public."

But DeMint said it's clear what path Southers will take. "I think he is following through on the president's promise to unionize," he said.

People on both side of the Transportation Security Administration unionization debate say that, ultimately, the Senate is likely to confirm
Southers, and that Southers is likely to support full unionization for the

"The political forces are aligning for this to happen," said Sherk of the Heritage Foundation. "It's not preordained, but it looks like there's a good chance."

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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Watchdog

    Let me rewrite your headline.....The TSA's were made Federal because congress demanded it.....Dems were drooling at the idea of more unionized federal employees.......SEIU T-shirts for all!!

    December 3, 2009 08:30 am at 8:30 am |
  2. shmeckel

    Oh good a union that can shut the entire country down when they want a raise.

    December 3, 2009 08:32 am at 8:32 am |
  3. Eric

    Rather than unionize the TSA, why not make the position more competitive by raising salaries as well as job requirements. You've got a bunch of robots now that have no ability to apply judgement to a situation. Unionizing them will just make the ineffective ones (and there are plenty) even harder to fire and replace with qualified people.

    December 3, 2009 08:33 am at 8:33 am |
  4. Todd

    demint is doing this because hard right fascists are attacking him in his primary. If it means hurting workers then it is all the btter for conservaitves.

    December 3, 2009 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  5. Retired US Army Officer-Kansas

    So what would unionization do? Perhaps bring in qualified individuals at decent pay and assist in the retention of qualified, professionals. But then again, whats wrong with a staff watching our backs that are abused, unhappy, under paided and there because they could not find anything else. What are they to do, run for Congress?

    December 3, 2009 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  6. Rafael VA

    Stop this from happening. We don't need anymore unions payback.

    December 3, 2009 08:38 am at 8:38 am |
  7. Curtis

    We do not need unionized, or any other type, "baggage screener." In fact, we ought to abolish the Department of Homeland Security, in general, and the TSA in particular. The TSA is the most useless federal agency in existence today. They are nothing more than a drain on the economy and the airline industry. I wonder how many people refuse to fly because they are concerned not about the safety of flying but about the unnecessary intrusion of the feds into our personal lives? I know I quit flying as soon as I could after their creation and I don't intend to fly again as long as I would be expected to yield to unlawful searches and seizures by the feds.

    December 3, 2009 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
  8. once upon a horse

    figures that it's a Republican that doesn't want the workers to unionize. They talk about no jobs yet don't want you to make a decent salary with good benefits if you do have one.

    December 3, 2009 08:45 am at 8:45 am |
  9. Enough

    Enough with the Union takeovers, then we will have to bail them out too, since Union demands destroy businesses and the right to have quality employees as well.

    December 3, 2009 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  10. in making quick changes, such as those made overnight in August of 2006 when the British uncovered a plot to destroy planes using liquid bombs

    well if you allow that then why don't we go after the Senator's guaranteed health care for life and the other perks Washington reps get

    we need term limits, we need all sorts of things that he himself is enjoying that make him less flexible and subject to change over night

    While we are talking Union, the teacher's Union is one of the biggest reason's the U.S. is falling behind with respect to the rest of the world

    December 3, 2009 08:50 am at 8:50 am |
  11. annie s

    More about politics than security? Allowing workers collective bargaining is against security? Honestly, the conservatives get loonier – and less supportive of the needs of workers – every day.

    December 3, 2009 08:53 am at 8:53 am |
  12. Gstreet

    I agree with Senator DeMint. Unions are as evil as Senators from South Carolina. Both are so focused on politics, the needs of the nation cannot be considered.

    December 3, 2009 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  13. George Guadiane - Austerlitz, NY

    What a SURPRISE!

    A Republican trying to block the working class from getting a union... And the WEAK excuse? They won't be as flexible in making security changes...

    As if a CONTRACT with the union couldn't effectively address that specific area.
    It's just another white color corporate-think attempt to keep the working class as powerless as possible.

    This is SUPPOSED to be about National Security... Don't you think we could all get on the same page about that and still talk about fair treatment and decent working conditions for employees?

    December 3, 2009 09:16 am at 9:16 am |
  14. wwaugh

    Again the confederate State law maker hold up progress with their God Reagan's de-regulation and their Hate for this President

    December 3, 2009 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  15. not alone

    wow demint your states in the toilet far as unemployment goes so you rather not see some of your work force make better money?

    December 3, 2009 09:22 am at 9:22 am |

    dimwit is the one from south carolina another member of the party of NO.

    December 3, 2009 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  17. Carnell From The Motor City!

    Senator Jim "The DeMinted One" DeMint R-South Carolina Is Try To Block A Union? I Mean Like...No Way! Not From A Man Who Already Obstructs Anything That President Obama Or Democrats Try To Do.

    December 3, 2009 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  18. Buzzman

    Unionizing TSA is another ploy from union presidents to make themselves rich and give them full power over the industry. Follow the money and you'll find Gage with his pocket open. He says his two guys got the guy in Fort Hood...Beautiful, they were also the ones who let him on base with guns....So are you claiming responsibility for the deaths too?

    December 3, 2009 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  19. Mark

    I guess the millions of dollars of contributions to the obama campaign by the unions will be paid back soon!

    Is this change you can believe in?

    December 3, 2009 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  20. DOG1

    First remember that this isn't about "baggage screeners", it's about all the TSA screeners. These people work at a job that is a great deal more difficult and stressful than any travelers realizes. They suffer abuse and contempt from passengers and in many cases work for managers that create a continuous enviroment of intimidation and threats. Many have been forced to work overtime with little or no compensation. They work in an agency that has created an advancement system designed to prevent as many of them as possible from getting a decent pay increase each year to save the agency money. AND YET THEY KEEP DOING THE JOB for the traveling public. The critics say the screeners won't be flexible enough in emergency situations if they're unionized (like the police and firefighters?) . YES they will for the reason they do the job under the conditions they endure right now, BECAUSE THEY CARE!!!!!

    December 3, 2009 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  21. Don Brown

    Too bad CNN didn't have time to work in the background to this story. President Bush refused to support the idea of a Department of Homeland Security (including the TSA) until Congress agreed to strip them all of the right to organize. In other words, the Bush Administration was the biggest union busting organization around.

    So much for Demint's logic of "quick changes". When a change was needed –right after 9/11 - the Bush Administration was more than willing to gum up the works in order to suppress unions.

    And that is the real issue of course - union suppression. Brought to you by the same people that brought us a war of choice in Iraq and a world-wide financial disaster. DeMint, The Heritage Foundation and Bush.

    Don Brown

    December 3, 2009 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  22. CNN afraid of a liberal post

    Republicans sure don't need no excuse for any delaying tatics they have. All they do it for is to make this administration look bad. Darn if this was democrats doing to the republicans what they are doing to this administration and for only pure spite, the MSM and everyone else would be messing their shorts and panties and using depends.

    December 3, 2009 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  23. Michael

    If you make it unionized this will totally hamper the effectiveness of the personal and how there jobs are performed along with pay.

    Union's are NOT the answer.

    December 3, 2009 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  24. Julia - Native American from Idaho

    What a complete idiot this Demented is, Unions are the only reason we have living wages in this country. Before unions, we had sweatshops, poverty level wages. The best example of Democracy is in your Union. God Bless the AFL-CIO. Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York on March 25,1911 resulting in the death of 146 garment workers. The workers died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. This is why you need a Unions.

    December 3, 2009 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  25. Rick McDaniel

    We don't need more unions in this country. We need better managers, who treat people decently, while getting the job done.

    In this economy, the examples of employee abuses, in order to cut manpower, has become glaring. Exactly the wrong thing to do to people.

    The number one reason, people leave a job, is their treatment on the job.

    December 3, 2009 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
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