WASHINGTON – The American Federation of Government Employees introduced its new local for airport screeners and baggage handlers Monday — even though the Transportation Security Administration in January banned unionization of its employees.
The federation, which represents more than 600,000 government employees, announced that it has 13 charter members among TSA workers at airports in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Orlando, Fla.
"I want to exercise my First Amendment rights of free speech and association through union representation," said Lee Marzke, a screener at Orlando International Airport, who said unsafe practices such as requiring workers to search baggage for bombs with their bare hands will continue until workers have a voice on the job.
As a result of his interest in unionizing, "I'm regarded as some sort of national security risk," Marzke said.
"All Americans have the right to belong to a labor organization under the Constitution, even federal employees working for the Transportation Security Administration," said AFGE President Bobby L. Harnage in a recent statement.
The head of the TSA countered that collective bargaining endangers national security.
"Adm. [James] Loy has said that fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly respond to threats," said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for the administration. "The screeners that we hired know they have an important job to do and that is to protect the traveling public."
Rhatigan added that the agency is in the process of building "a model workforce" that would embrace the best employment ideals and practices and that the agency has ombudsmen for workers to come to with grievances.
"Then why aren't they [coming to the ombudsmen]?" countered John Irvine, a spokesman for the union. "It's because the screeners don't trust them."
Cynthia Cavalie, a mother of 3-year-old twins, said she worked 25 consecutive days at John F. Kennedy International Airport last summer without notice.
Cavalie also said she didn't know where to turn after a former screener threatened to beat her up, and her supervisor didn't know how to handle the situation.
Irvine said that if workers "say anything they are out the door. They are being smothered because they don't have a unified voice."
Irvine said that screener complaints about late paychecks, haphazard scheduling and other "common courtesy issues" have been disregarded by the administration.
"The airport screeners are on the front lines of fighting terrorism, and they are saying that they need to have some representation," Irvine said. "That's ludicrous to say that union members disrupt national security."
The AFGE has sued the administration on behalf of a screener who wants to join and has filed seven petitions with the Federal Labor Relations Authority for the right to represent airport screeners and baggage handlers.
The Transportation Security Administration was created in November 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It officially moved Saturday from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security, along with 21 other federal agencies, including the Border Patrol, Customs and the Coast Guard.
The transportation agency has more than 60,000 employees in 529 commercial airports across the country. Irvine could not say how long the fight to unionize those workers might last — or what might happen to those employees who will be announced Monday as charter union members.
"Those are all good questions that need to be answered," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.