Friday, January 1, 2010

Will collective bargaining at the TSA make us safer?

The recent bombing attempt on the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit has amplified concerns about the lack of a permanent Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  It didn't take long for the finger pointing to ensue with Democrats blaming GOP Senator Jim Demint (R-SC) for holding up Obama nominee Erroll Southers' confirmation by the senate.

Demint's problem with Southers is not trivial.  In his confirmation hearings, Southers has refused to disclose his position on collective bargaining for the TSA.  In November, James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation explained why collective bargaining by employees of the agency charged with protecting our commercial air passengers is a very bad idea:
The TSA has avoided collective bargaining for good reason: Collective bargaining would reduce its effectiveness. The TSA needs the maximum flexibility to respond to potential threats. It needs the ability to rush screeners to high-risk locations and modify screening procedures at a moment's notice. Following the attempted U.K. airline bombings, for example, the TSA overhauled its procedures in less than 12 hours to prevent terrorists from smuggling liquid explosives onto any U.S. flights.[2]

The TSA cannot afford spending weeks or months negotiating new procedures or personnel assignments, as collective bargaining requires. Other government unions in the Department of Homeland Security have strongly resisted changing established procedures and the flexible assignment of personnel. The National Treasury Employees Union, for example, successfully brought the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before arbitration for breaking its contract after the CBP changed security procedures without first collectively negotiating them.[3]

Other countries that allow collective bargaining over security procedures 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.

The TSA needs the flexibility to act immediately to protect Americans. Collective bargaining introduces a layer of bureaucracy and delay that America cannot afford.
In addition, collective bargaining sacrifices merit promotions in favor of seniority, essentially protecting veteran workers irrespective of qualifications, job performance and competence.  This is taking transportation security in the wrong direction.  On a recent interview on Fox News, Isaac Yeffet, retired Israeli Secret Service agent and former head of Israeli El Al Airlines explained that the key to airline security is qualified, well-educated screeners, not machines. The relevant interchange occurs at the 2:35 minute mark on the video.  (It is noteworthy that El Al Airlines has long been considered the safest airline in the world, and has not had a successful terrorist attack in 30 years.) Mr. Yeffet's advice stands in direct contradiction to a system which is hamstrung by rules of seniority.

James Sherk adds:
Collective bargaining also impairs merit promotions. Today, airport screeners earn their promotions through merit and competence, not seniority. The TSA evaluates screeners on the basis of technical proficiency, training and development, customer service skills, teamwork, professionalism, and leadership, and it awards promotions, raises, and bonuses to high performers.[4] This allows the TSA to assign the best screeners to the most sensitive posts and to keep screeners motivated despite the potential tedium of their jobs.

Government unions insist on seniority-based promotions in collective bargaining, however. If Congress gives unions the chance, they are all but certain to insist on a seniority schedule for the TSA. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already sued the TSA for laying off workers who performed poorly on tests of skill without taking into account their seniority.[5]

A seniority-based promotion system would reduce performance-based incentives for individual workers and harm national security in the process. America needs the best and most motivated screeners in the most sensitive positions, not necessarily those on the job the longest.
Please notice that I have focused this post on Souther's ostensibly unclear position on collective bargaining (although his position can almost certainly be inferred by SEIU president Andy Stern's well worn footpath to the White House since President Obama moved in).  I'll save Souther's problem with telling the truth and obeying the law for another post.

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