Do we really need another big union of federal employees? Apparently President Obama thinks so. While Green Bay fans were celebrating their Super Bowl win, organized labor was high-fiving over the decision to allow airport screeners to join a union – a switch from prior practice that had been promised by candidate Obama. At a time when states and municipalities are struggling to manage cumbersome employee work rules and to fund the outsized benefits long promised to unionized public workers, it seems unfortunate that another slug of people on the federal payroll will soon present taxpayers with similar challenges.
The Obama administration has had a rock-n-roll relationship with Big Labor. On the one hand, the president has staffed his labor committees with former union activists and appointed Hilda Solis secretary of labor. Solis once sponsored a House bill recommending that we name a national park after Cesar Chavez. Nonetheless, his union allies are peeved that he is cozying up to big business, backing education reform and pushing forward a trade agreement with South Korea. These are, to many stalwart union activists, grievous acts from a candidate who once promised an AFL-CIO gathering “We’re ready to play offense for organized labor.”
Now that Mr. Obama has attempted to regain his standing with the majority of Americans – those, for instance, who think that the success of our employers is crucial to our country’s future–his relations with unions are ticklish. Organized labor provided tens of millions of dollars to President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and to “get out the vote” drives helpful to Democrats. In 2012, he will need continued, even higher, support. It is awkward then that a significant number of items on his to-do list put him at odds with Labor’s agenda.
One way to continue this do-se-do for President Obama is to encourage the growth of public worker unions. So it is that the administration has just overturned a standing policy forbidding airport security screeners to organize. This is a significant gift. There are some 63,000 TSA screeners on the job; the Wall Street Journal says that the group may become one of the largest federal unions. This is heaven-sent to public employee labor groups, who saw their ranks drop by 250,000 in 2010 as states trimmed payrolls.
In the past, TSA workers were barred from belonging to a union for fear that American security interests might be jeopardized by work rules that could, for example, hinder the rapid redeployment of workers in the event of an emergency. Though the decision announced by TSA head John Pilote will prohibit screeners from going out on strike (travelers may be sorry to hear this) and limits their bargaining on certain issues, they will be allowed to negotiate how their performance is graded and how work shifts are assigned.
The TSA already has in place a performance-based system designed to reward productive workers. Unions will doubtless push for seniority-based hiring and firing–the same approach now under fire in school districts around the country. They will also likely tangle operations with work rules of the sort now being investigated by New York City in an effort to improve productivity and reduce costs. Examples of the kinds of problems that might ensue can be found in recent rulings regarding employee complaints at the Customs and Border Protection Agency. The CBP lost in its bid to fire workers who literally fall asleep on the job, and its attempt to fire employees who failed to pass the firearm exam. Remember—this is a security operation. At the least, the nimbleness of the TSA may soon be compromised.
Unfortunately for the president, Americans are wise to the increasing burden they bear thanks to decades of overly generous contracts awarded to our public service employees. News headlines have exposed the near-automatic pay hikes awarded even in the midst of the recession that saw private sector incomes drop. The crushing weight of overly generous retirement and health benefits for municipal and state employees have been denounced by mayors and governors responsible for balancing precarious budgets. As the federal government strives to become more efficient and to rein in costs, it seems an unfortunate time for the Obama team to be encouraging workers to organize. Unfortunate, but not surprising.
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