Rich Cooper

Feb 7

There’s always been a long standing rule that if you want to bury a news story, release it on a Friday afternoon. If that is the case, then the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is intent on making sure no one knows that they have answered the long-drawn out question that has haunted the TSA for years: Will TSA screeners be given collective bargaining rights?

The answer, according to TSA Administrator, John Pistole is YES.


In a late afternoon call with various stakeholder groups, the administrator detailed the very specific areas, what he called “terms and conditions,” under which he and the DHS/TSA leadership would allow unions to represent the screeners. Those areas are essentially purely administrative and personnel functions. Anything related to security policies and programs, job qualifications, discipline, pay/compensation issues and proficiency testing was not negotiable. Furthermore any type of strike, work stoppage or slowdown was strictly prohibited.

In the public release detailing the long awaited decision, Administrator Pistole stated, “The safety of the traveling public is our top priority, and we will not negotiate on security.”

I don’t know about you, but this is news.

This decision has been subject to countless debates between two Administrations, multiple sessions of Congress, cable news shows, union and anti-union activists, and more. It even contributed to the derailing of two nominations for TSA Administrator before Pistole landed in the job this past summer.

While the decision will undoubtedly be howled at by anti-union forces, most notably Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) who has fought the unionization of TSA workers with an almost chest-thumping Tarzan-yelling zeal, Pistole has laid out some very firm barriers (more like electrified barb-wired jersey walls) that he and DHS/TSA leaders will engage a prospective TSA union.

In a 21-page “Determination” document, he lays clearly what the rules of engagement are to be, and there can be little misunderstanding of what is allowed and not allowed under this strategy.

When I heard the administrator speak to these items, I couldn’t help but think that as much as these 21 pages dictated the rules of the road for the unions fighting to represent the TSO’s and the TSA workers who want a union, they were written to address all of the various points Sen. DeMint and other Congressional opponents have raised over the past few years.

The administrator will get his first opportunity to hear what Congress thinks of his decision and his prescribed “terms and conditions” when he goes before the Transportation Security Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, February 10. I anticipate he will hear some Members stating the Obama Administration “caved in to union activists to satisfy a long-ago campaign promise” from the then-junior Senator from Illinois.

Others will probably say he was far too strict and is not giving the union enough area to work for its prospective members. In short, no one may be happy, and if that is the case, that probably means what Pistole put forward may just work.

The administrator has had to walk a proverbial tightrope here, balancing the politics of an administration that made a series of campaign promises to federal employees unions in 2008; the larger security interests and infrastructure demands of the nation’s complex transportation sector; and a range of other dynamic and nuanced winds, rocks, and arrows being hurled at him. What I’ve read thus far on his decision tells me Pistole has made it all the way across the initial high-wire. That by itself is one helluva accomplishment, considering all that he has already had to deal with in his less than a year on the job.

His next trick will be re-crossing that same high-wire and dealing with an operational union on top of the same political warriors, winds, rocks and arrows going back and forth as he strolls across the shark infested piranha tank.

In the end though, Pistole’s decision has given the administration a check in the box for its “to-do” list for essentially delivering on a campaign promise, even if his decision comes with 21 pages of strings attached. The federal employee unions have what they asked for, even though they have less than a quarter of the full loaf they wanted.

The same goes for the TSA workers. They will have the chance to pick what union they want to carry their water for them, even if that amount of water is about the size of larger-sized Dixie cup. And Sen. DeMint has to relish in the fact that the 21 pages Pistole crafted puts whatever union represents the TSA workforce into a box about the size of your average shoe box.

In the end, everybody gets something and nothing at the same time, and as long as security is not being negotiable, we as the American traveling public may be just fine.

And that is news, even on a Friday afternoon.

This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.


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