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Airport Security Workers Prepare For Largest Federal Election in U.S. History

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Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees -- i.e., the people that pat you down at the airport -- are about to make history. When they vote to decide which union will represent them in March, it will be the largest federal labor election in U.S. history.

Roughly 48,000 workers are set to vote starting March 9 on whether they will be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) or the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). While details are still emerging on whether the workers will be able to bargain collectively with the TSA, a successful election could help to bolster the country's total unionization rate, which has now fallen to just 11.9 percent, as David Moberg reported for In These Times this week.

Representatives from the TSA and both unions met with the Federal Labor Relations Authority last Friday to discuss terms of the election. AFGE, an AFL-CIO affiliate, has represented some workers since TSA was formed in 2001; it is the largest union in the federal government, with 600,00 workers. NTEU is the bargaining unit for 150,000 members across 31 agencies and departments.

The election date is not yet finalized because the technical measures are still being ironed out by the TSA, according to Cathie McQuiston, AFGE membership and organization deputy director.

"The agency is holding up finalizing the election terms because it seeks a bargaining unit description that departs from the norm," said McQuiston. "There is no dispute over the bargaining unit positions, just the language used to describe the unit."

As it stands, TSA workers are permitted to join unions, but not allowed to bargain collectively.

The labor organizing comes nearly a decade after TSA was created. Since then, unions have been trying to undo unfriendly measures that were enacted under the guise of national security. When the agency was created in 2001, Congress passed legislation allowing the Under-Secretary of Transportation to decide employment terms. A 2003 memo by that official prohibited workers from engaging in collective bargaining or using representation (i.e unions) to do so "in light of their critical national security responsibilities."

Most of the momentum has happened recently, due in part, as the Washington Post notes, to the rising productivity of the once stagnant Federal Labor Relations Authority. The agency, which oversees labor issues in the federal sector, decided in November that TSA members will be allowed to vote on union representation, paving the way for the elections.

Now that employees are permitted to vote on who will be their exclusive representative, the focus has shifted to allow collective bargaining. Both unions have pressed the TSA to grant rights to do so, and are hoping for a decision before balloting begins.

As the voting nears, the record-setting election is an anomaly at a time when unionization rates are continuing to fall. In 2009, unionized public sector workers outnumbered private sector employees for the first time, but the membership rate in 2010 for civil servants fell 1.2 percent to 36.2 percent. But the addition of airport security officials will boost more union members in the public sector, which totaled 7.6 million last year.

The previous record for the largest federal union election was in 2006 when the NTEU prevailed over the AFGE for the right to represent 24,000 U.S Customs and Border Protection workers. NTEU won by a two-to-one margin, the union says.

The unionization efforts have been opposed in the past, most notably by Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Today, the backlash has been amplified by opposition to public-sector unions. In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the invasive and tedious security precautions by the TSA was even the butt of a joke by President Obama.

The stress of dealing with angry passengers has reportedly contributed to low morale among its workforce. The union will be expected to improve workplace standards and provide a voice for a workforce belonging to an agency under constant political scrutiny.

(This post originally appeared in Working In These Times.)