Do you think that a government union would make the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) more effective? President Obama does. The White House recently decided to begin limited collective bargaining with airline security screeners.
The TSA will now collectively negotiate performance management processes, employee awards and recognition processes, and shift and transfer policies. Fortunately, the TSA will not (yet) bargain over promotions, security procedures, or personnel deployments—although the Administration can remove these limits later.
If the Administration is trying to protect Americans, this is a mistake. Collective bargaining is inherently adversarial. Pitting employees and employers against each other at the bargaining table fosters attitudes of “labor versus management” that often leads to strikes and job actions.
This has happened in other countries that allow security screeners to collectively bargain, such as Canada. During Thanksgiving of 2006, the security screeners union pressured management by instructing its members to hand-search every piece of luggage. This caused long backups and many missed flights. To ease the backlog, managers allowed 250,000 passengers to board their plans without being screened.
The current rules naturally prohibit such “collective job actions.” Unfortunately, government unions often illegally strike despite such prohibitions, putting vital public services at risk. Unionizing the TSA would bring the possibility of illegal labor disputes that would endanger passengers.
Collective bargaining would also make rewarding and motivating employees more difficult, because government unions typically oppose merit awards. They prefer seniority-based systems that ignore individual performance. Unionizing the TSA would allow unions to negotiate away merit recognition and reduce the incentive for good performance.
Union contracts impede the effectiveness of federal agencies. In most agencies, that means extra bureaucracy and wasted money. In national security agencies, it can cost lives. That is why federal law prohibits collective bargaining at the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service. Protecting the lives of Americans is too important to allow union contracts to get in the way. The same should be true at the TSA. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration disagrees.
Some in Congress see it differently. Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS) and Representative Todd Rokita (R–IN) just introduced the TSA Efficiency and Flexibility Act, which would apply to the TSA the same collective bargaining policies that govern the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service. Congress may yet bring a measure of sanity to airline security screenings.