These are tough times for labor unions. They are under attack in the private sector and at all levels of government. But workers are waking up to the reason for the attacks: unions are essential sources of protection for essential workers.
So it is that the labor movement has now secured one of the most important victories of recent years in a high-profile area of the public sector.
In a run-off election completed this week, the nation’s 40,000 Transportation Security Administration employees voted to become members of the American Federation of Government Employees.
AFGE will provide exclusive representation to the workers at airports across the country, who for many years after the creation of the TSA were denied the right to organize.
This year, TSA Administrator John Pistole agreed that airport screeners were entitled to collective-bargaining rights.
That decision came after a long and difficult struggle by AFGE and other unions to organize the TSA workers.
Barriers to the organizing drive were erected by low-level federal bureaucrats at the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Finally, the labor relations authority board accepted petitions from AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union to hold an election to determine which labor union would represent TSA workers. Then Republican senators got into the act, sponsoring legislation to end collective-bargaining rights for airport screeners.
The Senate rejected the Termination of Collective Bargaining for Transportation Security Administration Employees Act, which was presented in February (by the anti-labor troika of Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn and Maine’s Susan Collins) as an amendment to Federal Aviation Administration authorization legislation.
Wicker, Coburn, Collins and their allies in the right-wing echo chamber tried to gin up a fantasy argument that unionizing public employees would somehow threaten national security. It was an absurd construct from the beginning—as union workers have been critical players in the defense of the republic at least since days when members of the radical National Maritime Union manned Merchant Marine boats on some of the most dangerous runs of World War II. (The civilian auxiliary of the US Navy, the Merchant Marine consists of unionized mariners, who in times of war are considered military personnel.)
As Woody Guthrie, an NMU mariner, recalled in his great talking-blues reflection on the World War II–era “Talking Merchant Marine”:
“I’m just one of the merchant crew,
I belong to the union called the N. M. U.
I’m a union man from head to toe,
I’m U. S. A. and C. I. O.
Fightin’ out here on the waters to win some freedom on the land.”
TSA workers are only the latest federal employees in critical national security positions to unionize. And the attacks on them and their potential union representatives have been crude and insulting.
But the answer to the insults came in the voting by airport screeners and their colleagues on whether to go union.
TSA workers overwhelmingly favored union representation but divided over whether they wanted it from AFGE or the treasury employees union. After two rounds of voting, AFGE has prevailed, and the union’s president, as AFGE president John Gage explained, “Workplace rights improve employee morale, which will improve security, not undermine it. A bargaining agreement would lead to better working conditions, fair promotion and evaluation practices and safer workplaces, and in doing so, increase morale.”
Gage is right.
America’s better off with unionized airport screeners—and it is good to know that, even as the anti-union right (in Congress and in the media) spread their lies, working Americans are still voting for the union. And the labor movement continues to fight—with notable success—for its rightful place in areas of the public sector that are responsible for public safety and security.