DHS expands collective bargaining for TSA airport screeners

Although the American Federation of Government Employees praised the move, the union says it is still going to press for legislation to move TSA employees into Title 5.

A TSA agent searches luggage at an airport.  Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday that frontline airport screeners are set to get expanded collective bargaining rights.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas instructed the Transportation Security Administration to make a plan to improve compensation for employees at the Transportation Security Agency, and DHS says that they will work to ensure that TSA processes adhere to Merit Systems Protection Board principles and will evaluate personnel policies like appeal procedures for potential changes.

"TSA employees are outstanding public servants who work on the frontlines, including throughout the pandemic, to keep the traveling American public safe," Mayorkas said in a statement. "They deserve the empowerment of collective bargaining and a compensation structure that recognizes and rewards them for their contributions to our safety and security."

Democratic lawmakers have long backed legislation to shift TSA screeners to Title 5, a category that covers much of the federal workforce and also guarantees access to whistleblowers protection and the general schedule salary plan.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, hailed the move. "I commend the Biden administration for taking decisive action to improve conditions for the TSA workforce," Thompson said in a statement. "TSA frontline officers have been grossly underpaid and denied basic workplace rights for far too long."

Republicans have said they are reluctant to abandon the broad flexibility the TSA administrator currently has over the agency's personnel management system.

The American Federal of Government Employees represents TSA screeners, who currently have some bargaining rights but all those afforded to most feds.

TSA and AFGE will negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, according to DHS' announcement of the changes. The agency says that the expanded union rights will be akin to those given to other agencies "while preserving TSA's ability to meet its critical security mission."

"This is a win for equity and a defeat for the inexcusable history of disparate treatment of TSOs," said AFGE national president Everett Kelley in a statement. "There has never been a reason to deny them the same union and civil service rights as their counterparts in other agencies."

Hydrick Thomas, president of AFGE's Council 100, which represents nearly 46,000 TSA officers nationwide, said that the changes will likely also help reduce turnover of TSA employees.

Although AFGE leaders cheered the win, they say that they're intent on continuing to support the bill that would move frontline TSA workers to Title 5 "so that no future TSA Administrator can undo the progress that Secretary Mayorkas is putting into place."