July 12, 2007 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Congress Deserves Praise for Dropping Collective Bargaining withSecurity Screeners

Congressional negotiators have agreed to drop a provision that would have harmed national security from legislation to implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. The original version of the legislation required the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) to collectively bargain with security screeners, something the 9/11 Commission never recommended. Collective bargaining would impede the TSA from flexibly responding to new threats. Both congressional Democrats and Republicans deserve praise for removing this detrimental provision from the bill. The bill, however, needs further revision to provide greater security for the American people.

9-11 Commission Never Recommended Collective Bargaining

Under current law, TSA security screeners may not collectively bargain over working conditions. TSA screeners may belong to a union, and the TSA withholds union dues for screeners who request it, but the union may not collectively negotiate how TSA screeners perform their jobs. The labor movement has used its political clout to persuade Congress to insert collective bargaining provisions into bills in the House and the Senate (H.R. 1 and S. 4) to implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. The 9/11 Commission, however, never recommended that Congress do this--for good reason.

Collective Bargaining Hurts National Security

The TSA needs the flexibility to change its security procedures to respond to new threats and intelligence as they emerge. Without collective bargaining, it has this flexibility. In response to the attempted liquid explosives attack on British airlines, for example, the TSA changed its screening procedures literally overnight. The TSA could not have done this had it been required to collectively bargain with the screeners' union before changing screeners' working conditions. Collective bargaining takes time; terrorists will not wait until contract negotiations have finished before attacking.

Collective bargaining would also threaten the merit pay system that the TSA uses to keep its screeners motivated and to put the best workers in the most sensitive positions. Unions usually insist on seniority-based promotions and job protections that make it nearly impossible to fire workers who under-perform. In the private sector, this is inefficient and puts some companies out of business. In the TSA, putting less competent screeners in sensitive positions just because they have seniority could cost lives. Americans need the best screeners protecting them, not just those who have the most union seniority.

Other countries that allow their security workers to collectively bargain have found that it harms national security. A 2006 labor dispute in Toronto caused many pieces of luggage to go unscreened and allowed 250,000 passengers to board their planes with minimal or no security screening.

Congress Deserves Praise

Congressional negotiators recently agreed to drop the collective bargaining provision from the 9/11 bill, and for this, both parties deserve praise. Republicans stood up for the American people and refused to allow the bill to proceed to a conference committee until this harmful provision was dropped. Democrats, for their part, reluctantly agreed to remove the collective bargaining language from the bill. Standing up to a campaign contributor and a highly influential special interest is not easy, even for the right reasons. Democrats deserve praise for putting the safety of the American people ahead of the interests of organized labor.

More Improvements Needed

Soon House Members and Senators will join in conference to reconcile the differences between the bills passed in each chamber. The conferees can take steps to make the bill even better. Two measures are of particular import. Conferees should:

  • Strip a measure proposed in the House to mandate the inspection of every shipping container sent to the United States. Mandatory inspection of all containers would be extremely expensive and offer little increase in overall security. The technologies available to conduct inspections are neither effective nor practical. Most of all, 100 percent screening is probably among the least effective means to prevent terrorists from shipping deadly cargos to the United States.

  • Add flexibility in implementing the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The Senate's bill contains important provisions for reforming VWP by adding additional security provisions and creating additional opportunities for strong U.S. allies to participate in the program. These are good policies. In addition, Congress should grant the Administration greater waiver authority for allowing U.S. allies to enter the program if they agree to certain standards to enhance security and combat illegal migration.

Push Ahead

Forcing the TSA to collectively bargain would endanger American lives by denying the TSA flexibility and saddling the agency with a seniority system in place of merit pay. Members of Congress from both parties deserve praise for striking this harmful provision that the 9/11 Commission never recommended. If it makes further improvements, Congress will have an opportunity to pass legislation that will help keep America safe, free, and prosperous.

James Sherk is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis, and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow