Federal employee union presses DHS to follow through on expanding collective bargaining for TSOs

The American Federation of Government Employees is at odds with TSA Administrator David Pekoske over what the union says is an unnecessary delay in expanding co...

The largest federal employee union is pressing the Biden administration to follow through on its pledge to expand collective bargaining for transportation security officers, as the union says the Transportation Security Administration is attempting to “scuttle” the process.

The American Federation of Government Employees is at odds with TSA Administrator David Pekoske over what the union says is an unnecessary delay in expanding collective bargaining for the approximately 50,000 airport screeners who work for TSA.

AFGE is now appealing to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, asking him to direct Pekoske to issue a determination that expands the scope of national-level bargaining for TSOs. TSA is a subcomponent of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We need Secretary Mayorkas to go back to Administrator Pekoske and remind him of what he told him to do back in June, which was expand collective bargaining rights,” Chris Blessing, staff counsel for AFGE Council 100, said in an interview. “That’s ready to go. It’s ready to be signed. It’s just not happening.”

TSOs are largely excluded from the personnel systems and collective bargaining rights available to most other federal employees under Title 5. They’re also paid wages lower than the General Schedule pay scale used for most other federal employees.

Last June, Mayorkas directed TSA to expand collective bargaining rights, negotiate an agreement to bring appeals before the Merit Systems Protection Board, and develop a plan to pay screeners in line with the General Schedule.

In September, TSA and the MSPB struck an agreement on the appeals process, allowing TSOs to appeal certain firings, demotions and long-term suspensions before the board.

AFGE concedes that increasing pay for security screeners will require Congress approving an increase to TSA’s budget.

But according to Blessing, during a January meeting, Pekoske told AFGE representatives that TSA will require additional funding from Congress before it moves forward on collective bargaining, as well.

“Collective bargaining does not require any sort of congressional action,” Blessing said. “This could be done by the administrator today. It certainly could have been done yesterday.”

A DHS spokeswoman said Mayorkas and Pekoske are “leading the effort to ensure that Transportation Security Officers are compensated fairly and have the rights and privileges of an expanded labor framework,” pointing to the actions directed in last June’s memo.

“DHS continues to work diligently to achieve these goals, including by ensuring that TSA has the resources to successfully and meaningfully implement these improvements,” the spokeswoman said.

Disputed cost estimates

AFGE points to a Sept. 8 information memo from Pekoske that reviews “TSA Workforce Compensation Initiatives.” It concludes TSA would need 958 full-time equivalent positions to cover the expanded collective bargaining and appeals processes at an annual cost of $171.4 million, including 479 positions beyond what was included in the fiscal year 2022 budget request.

The memo also estimates TSA pay adjustments will cost an additional $1.1 billion in the first year of implementation and nearly $8 billion over a five-year period.

In a Jan. 20 letter to Mayorkas, AFGE President Everett Kelley disputes those numbers and argues TSA is using “inflated cost estimates to justify inaction.”

“If ever an attempt to scuttle title 5 pay and collective bargaining rights for TSOs was delivered, this is it,” Kelley wrote.

A DHS official, speaking on background, said TSA has prepared a plan to implement “appropriate compensation measures should funding become available.” The agency has also presented a revised draft determination on collective bargaining as well as a proposed timeline to DHS.

“TSA’s current labor framework is unique in that there are a limited number of topics that are subject to collective bargaining,” the official said. “TSA is currently resourced only to support this limited labor framework. TSA must have the funding and tools needed to make the expanded program effective and successful.”

AFGE argues Pekoske could issue a collective bargaining determination now and begin the process before receiving appropriations to implement the agreement.

“We would be negotiating a collective bargaining agreement under a Title 5 framework for the first time,” Blessing said. “That’s not going to happen overnight. Even if TSA thinks it’s going to take a couple years to get this money, we should certainly be able to negotiate that contract and have it ready to go for ratification and implementation for that time when TSA says we need all these things.”

Congressional action possible

Democrats in Congress are looking to give TSOs General Schedule pay and expanded collective bargaining rights. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is sponsoring the “Rights for the TSA Workforce Act.” A companion bill has also been introduced in the Senate.

In a statement, Thompson noted Pekoske recently sent the committee a letter that notes the bill will result in “many positive effects,” including an average pay increase of 30% for TSOs.

“We are actively engaging with TSA regarding their cost estimates to transition to Title 5 pay and collective bargaining rights, and hope that they include this in the president’s FY23 budget request,” Thompson said in a statement.

A Feb. 7 White House task force report on worker organization and empowerment also recommends Biden expand collective bargaining for TSOs to “empower TSA employees and encourage union membership.”

But Blessing said the delays and uncertainty are out of step with the Biden administration’s pledge to be the most labor friendly in history. He believes TSA management may be hesitant to expand collective bargaining because it would cede some level of control over the workforce.

“I think the real explanation here is that TSA has enjoyed incredible discretion within the labor framework for the last 20 year since TSA was created, really unlike no other agency,” Blessing said.
“They’ve been able to do whatever they want. And I get it, if I were them, I wouldn’t want to give that up either.”

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