As a longtime student of American labor relations I never thought I'd see the day when I'd read the words in the 2003 letter from Admiral J.M. Loy, Undersecretary of Transportation, to the airport screeners at the newly formed Transportation Security Agency (TSA). He said:
"Having considered the security screeners' critical role in national security, I have concluded that collective bargaining would be incompatible with national security interests. I have therefore issued an order that precludes collective bargaining on behalf of screeners."
How, I thought, could the leadership of a democratic society sink to such a low level? I had been educated by a generation of scholars and public servants who had come out of the experience of fighting fascism and Nazism in World War II to build a collective bargaining system that was a "bulwark of a democratic society." Democracy in society could not long survive if not supported by democracy in the workplace. Out of their experiences and commitment to public service, they went on to build a system for providing workers with an independent voice at work and procedures to facilitate orderly collective bargaining, that became a model for new and emerging democracies around the world.
Admiral Loy turned this principle on its head. But I took comfort in knowing that this would likely be a temporary condition--as soon as the Bush Administration had run its course this assault on one of our democratic values would be reversed. Indeed, candidate Obama and President Obama promised to reverse this decision.
One Republican member of the Senate, however, is holding up the confirmation of Errol Southers, the President's candidate to become the Administrator of the TSA, over this issue. On Christmas Day we had an unfortunate example of the cost of this partisan, anti-democratic behavior. Just when the nation most needs strong leadership of this critical Agency to review and strengthen security procedures, the country is being held hostage to this bogus argument that collective bargaining is a threat to national security.
It is not only time to put a stop to this nonsense but it is time for the TSA, its workforce, and the unions vying to represent screeners to get together and design and implement a new collective bargaining system that realizes its full innovative potential. Highly successful models from other settings are available for their consideration. These state-of-the-art models regularly begin by negotiating rules of conduct, timelines, and dispute resolution procedures to govern the elections in which employees decide whether and who they want to represent them. They also typically include framework agreements covering rules governing contract negotiations, labor management consultation on the broader issues involving new technologies, operating procedures, deployment of personnel and other critical issues that typically do not fall within the formal scope of mandatory bargaining issues. Most importantly, they commit to engaging front line workers and supervisors in trying to more effectively achieve their organization's mission and to improve service quality and efficiency.
This is what is needed at TSA right now, but it is blocked by Senator James DeMint from South Carolina who instead chooses to use the appointment of Mr. Southers for narrow political purposes. It is time for all responsible members of the Senate to tell their colleague to fulfill his responsibilities to the American public. If they do this, then perhaps someday soon we will read a letter from Mr. Southers outlining his vision for how he and his management colleagues will engage the screeners and their union representatives in ensuring our national security. My faith in our democracy would then be restored.