TSA should not unionize

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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It is no secret that unions reward longevity over performance, and protect employees from being disciplined for cause. Most collective bargaining agreements limit the ability for a hard worker to earn a raise or promotion unless they have reached a seniority based on time. The outcome of this paradigm is that workers are offered little incentive to achieve beyond the status quo. Bad employees are protected from dismissal while good employees are marginalized.

So what would happen if you introduced this model to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)? More horrific airport experiences, potential screener protests and bad agents being protected at the expense of the good.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been inundated with dreadful stories from airports across the nation. This led to a policy-based argument on the screening measures being rolled out by the current administration. Sure, the administration rolled out new methods without a cohesive public affairs strategy or a causal explanation by national leaders, but that wasn’t the whole problem. Part of the problem was that some people are simply bad at their jobs.

Some TSA agents didn’t follow proper procedures, or they lacked the sense to know when to be flexible, like when a bladder cancer survivor named Tom Sawyer was forced to board a plane in Detroit, Michigan, last week with the contents of his urostomy bag (urine) covering him.

TSA Administrator John Pistole called Mr. Sawyer and apologized. But what happened to the agent who allowed this to happen? And more importantly, what would happen if the agent was protected by a collective bargaining agreement?

I happened to fly into Detroit Metropolitan Airport with my family for Thanksgiving.

Departing out of Baltimore, Maryland, I was concerned that passengers would “opt out” or protest, causing unnecessary delays and havoc. However, I was pleasantly surprised at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport when the line moved swiftly and the TSA personnel were gracious, professional and clearly trained.

On my return flight out of Detroit Metropolitan Airport, things went poorly. I witnessed the poorly trained and rude personnel of Detroit TSA who did not follow procedures and acted in an abusive and offensive manner. As if my beloved hometown of Detroit needed more PR problems.

Upon entering a Millimeter Wave machine, after receiving inconsistent instructions on what clothes to take off and what not to, my boarding pass was taken by an agent. Upon exiting, and without warning, the agent cupped his hand around, er, an area he shouldn’t have been cupping, and began rooting around at my own horror and embarrassment. No cause was given for a secondary screening, if one was even taking place.

The agent lost my boarding pass, and a boorish supervisor was quick to tell me to move along and stop asking questions. My wife’s bag was searched without her knowledge or presence and returned in a disheveled pile. (When asked his name, the supervisor would only say “John” and refused to show identification).

I still don’t even know if I had a “secondary screening” or if the agent just had a personal curiosity about what was under my pants. While not comparable to Mr. Sawyer’s experience, I did quickly understand why emotions have been running high in airports for weeks.

Both the Baltimore and Detroit agents reported to the same federal authority, with the same policies, yet one group was diligent and professional, and one group was inept and irresponsible. If TSA unionized, all stations would be held to the lowest common standard (Detroit), with no incentives for excellence (Baltimore), and the outcome would be a diminished layer of security.

Unionizing the TSA personnel would be a mistake of epic proportions. Powerful unions want the government to hand them 50,000 new dues-paying members (more union members than currently work at GM) and John Pistole is likely to concede and wrongly allow collective bargaining.

The result will be a union organization dedicated to keeping the inept officials I witnessed in Detroit protected from consumer complaints, and politically paying off liberal allies in Congress to keep the kickbacks coming.

As worried as most travelers were last week when a few fliers threatened to protest, the results — fear and delays — would have been much worse had the TSA agents been the ones organizing a demonstration. Four years ago in Toronto, Canada, unionized screeners reeked havoc by hand-inspecting each piece of luggage in protest, which resulted in massive disruptions and unsecure flights.

Privatizing the screening personnel would not change the underlying policies, but it would mean that a for-profit business was responsible for the character and conduct of its employees. This would likely result in more accountability, not less. Airports have the ability to “opt-out” of TSA personnel, as Orlando, Florida, recently proved, and this would probably become more frequent under a unionized regime.

It doesn’t matter what profession you work in, someone around you is not doing their job well or following proper protocols. In Congress, an ethically-challenged member like Charlie Rangel makes the whole lot look like tax-evading cheats. The worst dentist you ever saw probably affects your opinion every time you get in the chair. And at TSA, a poorly trained and ineffectual officer can turn you against personnel that you had once trusted.

Over this holiday, I saw the best of TSA, and the worst. Unfortunately, the outlook is grim that we’ll see more Baltimores in the future, and less Detroits. For the most part, TSA agents are heroic and admirable, many joining the agency after September 11, 2001 to help keep America safe. But their reputation is sullied by those who lack professional integrity. In order to protect their own reputations, and the travelling public, they should vote no when the offer is made to unionize.

Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications for The Heritage Foundation. He served in the Bush White House in the Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council between 2001 and 2004. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper