Over Thanksgiving weekend of 2006, airport screeners in Toronto began meticulously searching every carry-on bag by hand. The delays caused security lines to pile up. Passengers began missing their flights en masse. To break the bottleneck, supervisors allowed 250,000 passengers to board their flights with “minimal or no screening.” One Canadian security expert dryly observed, “If terrorists had known that in those three days that their baggage wasn’t going to be searched, that would have been bad.”
What motivated the screeners to inspect every bag by hand?
Their union was upset with contract negotiations and wanted to pressure management. The delays and missed flights were intentional. The Canadian screeners’ union could and did put its interests over public safety.
The United States has started heading in this direction. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created after 9/11 to prevent terrorists from boarding planes. Today the Administration announced it had signed the first collective bargaining agreement with TSA employees. This was a bad idea for many reasons.
First, TSA employees perform a vital function. What happens if they strike? The Obama Administration has prohibited screener strikes, but government unions often strike illegally. Consider the illegal Detroit teachers or New York City transit strikes. Even if they do not formally strike, unions can engage in work slowdowns, as in Toronto. A labor dispute at a national security agency like the TSA could cost lives.
Second, though collective bargaining at the TSA is currently limited, it could be expanded in the future to the detriment of passenger safety. Government rarely fails to expand its influence and bureaucracy when given the opportunity. Currently the TSA has the flexibility to assign agents where they are most needed. If future negotiations extend to staffing and scheduling decisions—as they do at Customs and Border Protection—that could change, making it hard for the TSA to rapidly adapt to new threats.
Third, collective bargaining contracts usually sharply limit performance pay. Right now, the TSA provides merit pay to its top performers. Historically, unions have opposed merit pay, even when their members could dramatically benefit. Limiting performance bonuses would make it much harder to reward and motivate diligent employees.
The law does not require the Administration to collectively bargain with security screeners. The President voluntarily decided to do so. The American people would be safer if the President had heeded President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s views on this matter: “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into public service.… Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount.”