TSA unionization may open floodgates

More than 40,000 TSA workers were given collective bargaining rights last month. Will this make unionizing more widespread?

Julie Jacobson / AP / FIle
Transportation Security Administration supervisor Nick Fox, right, demonstrates new software being tested with advanced imaging technology at McCarran International Airport Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011, in Las Vegas. How will TSA's collective bargaining rights affect the way the department runs?

I was traveling (ironically) on February 4th and have been blissfully ignorant of the news that TSA workers are on the verge of wearing the union label. Talking about President Obama’s move to the center on CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning, Jack Welch said, “Let’s hope he’s moving to the center. But from what I see—unionizing 43,000 TSA workers on a Friday and giving a speech (to the US Chamber of Commerce) Monday morning—show me the money.”

If there has been any uproar about this, I’ve missed it. Welch’s point on Squawk Box was that although Obama hasn’t passed card-check legislation that is (rightly) feared because it would make unionization far more wide-spread, unionizing 43,000 government workers on a slow news Friday afternoon was significant. Even with card check regulation, unions would have to spend money ramping up campaigns and targeting employers. Obama did a back-door card check by adding thousands of soon-to-be dues-paying government workers at no cost to big labor.

Two unions are fighting for the $18 million in annual dues that the TSA crew will provide: National Treasury Employees Union and American Federation of Government Employees. “Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees when the decision was announced.

Gage called the decision “a big first step” for TSA workers, saying it would help improve employee satisfaction and morale at the agency, which was ranked near the bottom among all federal agencies in a recent survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

That’s right, as Yuri Maltsev explains the surest way to demoralize people and turn them into alcoholics and the like, in droves, is to have them stand around and do nothing that’s productive while getting paid for it.

TSA administrator, John Pistole, said the decision will allow bargaining on a national level over certain employment issues such as setting work shifts, transfers, vacation time and awards (yes, that’s right, awards). However, the deal prohibits negotiating on the deployment of security personnel, job qualifications, testing or discipline. It also bars any work slowdowns.

Like entrepreneurs who deal with government regulation day-to-day in order to conduct business, those us who fly regularly learn how to navigate as efficiently as possible the borders the TSA has erected in every airport around the country. Movies like Up In The Air and commercials for National Car Rental highlight the skills of the frequent flier, “You are a business pro, executor of efficiency. You can spot an amateur a mile away, while going shoeless and metal free in seconds.”

Business Pro meet the dues-paying, attitude and card-carrying union “worker,” member of America’s middle class. You may be able to check in online, have your boarding pass on your iPod, but then there’s the Big Blue Border. No technology allowed here: it’s plastic tubs and standing around. Over time it will become trickier to transverse the wall of blue that is a thicket of uniforms “guided by the basic principle that dress and appearance should promote esprit de corps within the workforce while instilling trust and confidence in the public. The uniform, in particular, is to stand as a readily identifiable symbol of the security mission and role of the TSO in executing the agency’s core values: integrity, innovation, and team spirit,” the TSA website rhapsodizes.

In another decade the political discussion will not be framed as to whether passengers can actually fly without steering through a government checkpoint at all. Those on the right will argue as to how the TSA must be made more efficient and cost the taxpayers less but be ever present to keep us safe. On the other side of the aisle the argument will be about respect for government workers and proper working conditions. It is only a matter of time before airline schedules must take into account TSA shift changes and staffing levels.

As the TSA bureaucracy grows, it will mean a slow death to the business pro road warrior. Face-to-face will be driven out of style and today’s young people are ready: Facebook meetings, Skype and who knows what.

And then, the TSA really will be Thousands Standing Around.

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