Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #34 November 13, 2001

Unions and Congress Are Split
On Federalizing Airport Screeners

By Harry Kelber

We’re about to witness a high-stakes struggle to decide whether the nation’s 28,000 airport baggage screeners will become federal employees or will continue to work for private contractors hired by the airlines.

On one side are most Republicans, who passed an Administration-backed airport security bill in the House on Nov. 1 by a vote of 286-130. It would increase federal supervision over airport safety activities, but forbids hiring of screeners as government employees. Their unlikely ally is the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO’s largest and fastest-growing affiliate, which has organized about 1,500 screeners and wants to retain the private contracting system.

On the other side are most Democrats, who have passed a bill in the Senate by a 100-0 vote to federalize the entire operation. Their allies include several powerful AFL-CIO unions representing federal employees, flight attendants, state and local employees, machinists, auto workers, teamsters, transport workers and air traffic controllers. In addition to their concerns about passenger safety, a few unions are eyeing the baggage screeners as potential union members who would be fairly easy to organize if they become government employees.

Both sides are involved in non-stop lobbying to influence the House and Senate conferees who are now attempting to resolve their differences. Several unions sponsored TV spots in which viewers were urged to tell their representatives that airport safety “isn’t a job for the lowest bidder.”

SEIU President Andrew Stern favors a pre-flight screening system modeled after those used at airports in Europe, Asia and Israel, where the government sets the safety standards, but private contractors operate the system. Screeners in these countries are well-trained and paid an average of $30,000 a year, enough to attract educated, professional-minded job applicants.

Private airport security companies in the United States typically hire screeners at $6 to $7 an hour after doing sloppy background checks and providing very little training. British-owned Argenbright Security, which services 17 of the 20 largest U.S. airports, was fined $1.2 million last year for falsifying records and hiring “at least” 14 people with criminal records at the Philadelphia airport. Annual job turnover rates are horrendous — 416% at the St. Louis airport and 375% at Atlanta, according to the General Accounting Office.

Even SEIU, a union that is considered aggressive in its organizing and progressive in its politics, may not be able to change the industry’s sweatshop practices very much. Since the companies’ primary concern is profit, they will likely continue to take whatever shortcuts they can to prop up the bottom line.

The coalition of private- and public-sector unions, not including SEIU, has sent a letter to the Senate-House conferees insisting that the “best way to restore the confidence of Americans in the nation’s air transit system is to ensure that the important work of screening passengers is performed by reliable and experienced federal employees.”

An announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration that it would hire temporary workers to provide oversight and support at airports drew a blistering retort from Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Temporary rent-a-cops won’t protect America from terrorists. The work of screening passengers at the nation’s major airports should not be left to temps and contractors whose bottom line is profit,” he said.

Recalling a recent incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport where a carry-on bag loaded with knives and a stun gun was overlooked at a security checkpoint, Hamage said: “We wouldn’t use temps on six-month contracts to protect the White House or the U.S. Capitol. We shouldn’t hire than to protect the flying public.”

This is one of those infrequent times when a large part of the public appears to favor federalizing an operation that is being run by private companies. The thought of adding at least 28,000 people to the federal payroll horrifies House Republican leaders, whose mantra has been “shrink the government.” And you can be sure they also worry that the screeners will be unionized and more likely to vote Democratic.

A provision in both the Senate and House bills would allow only citizens to work as screeners — meaning that even legal immigrants with green cards could not be hired. As the SEIU points out, “Pilots, flight attendants and thousands of other airport and airline workers are immigrant workers. Pre-board screeners should not be held to a double standard.” The SEIU proposes that all screeners — regardless of immigration status — be required to pass stringent background checks before they are hired.

A related issue that should give unions pause is the extraordinary control over baggage screeners that Attorney General John Ashcroft would assume under the aviation security bill (H.R.3165) introduced by Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Dem.-Mo.) and Greg Ganske (Rep.-Iowa). The bill would give Ashcroft the authority to “employ, appoint, discipline, terminate, and fix the compensation and conditions of employment” of screeners and do whatever else he deems necessary to carry out passenger security functions.

It makes no sense to place such sweeping powers in the hands of an ultraconservative attorney general who is hostile to the concerns of working families.

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed at every Tuesday. Our “LaborTalk” column appears every Monday.

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