Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has placed a hold on President Obama’s nominee for Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Erroll Southers. Since the attempted underwear bombing, many pundits have attacked DeMint for this on the grounds that the agency needs permanent leadership. DeMint should ignore these criticisms: his actions have protected American travelers.
Current law gives the TSA Administrator discretion over whether to collectively bargain with airport security screeners. The TSA has determined that collective bargaining would endanger the safety of America’s air passengers. 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. However, Southers may change this policy – to the detriment of the American people.
The TSA has avoided collective bargaining for good reason: the bureaucracy and delays of collective bargaining hurt the agency’s ability to defend Americans. The TSA 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.
The TSA cannot spend weeks or months negotiating new procedures or personnel assignments, as collective bargaining requires. Other government unions have strongly resisted changing established procedures. 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.
Other countries that allow collective bargaining over security procedures have found that it harms national security. A 2006 labor dispute in Toronto allowed 250,000 passengers to board their planes with minimal or no security screening. As one security expert commenting on the Toronto experience dryly noted “If terrorists had known that in those three days that their baggage wasn’t going to be searched, that would have been bad.”
Collective bargaining also prevents the TSA from putting the right employee in the right post. Today, airport screeners earn their promotions through merit and competence, not seniority. This allows the TSA to assign the best screeners to the most sensitive posts and to keep screeners motivated despite the tedium of their jobs.
Government unions insist on seniority-based promotions in collective bargaining, however. 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. America needs the best and most motivated screeners in the most sensitive positions, not those on the job the longest.
The last thing the TSA needs as it examines how to prevent more explosive from being smuggled onto future flights is worrying about whether the AFGE will agree to the new security countermeasures and what the union wants in return. However, President Obama promised the AFGE – a strong supporter of his campaign – that his nominee to head the TSA would begin collective bargaining. Erroll Southers has ducked this question, meaning he almost certainly would help the President deliver on this promise. That helps the union movement expand, but puts American lives at risk. So Sen. DeMint has placed Southers’ nomination on hold.
Sen. DeMint deserves praise for preventing such an ill-advised change in policy from going through under the radar. By preventing the TSA from being tied down in a sea of collectively bargained red-tape he has improved the safety of American travelers. The Senate should carefully consider and debate the Southers nomination. The stakes–American lives–are too high for them to ignore.