By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Homeland Security Department said on Thursday that 46,000 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers will be eligible for expanded union rights and the department will move to boost pay for frontline airport screeners.
Unions have sought the move for two decades. Since 2011, the officers representing 70% of TSA's workforce have had labor union representation but lacked certain protections other unionized government employees have, including some collective bargaining rights.
The announcement is the latest by the Biden administration in support of workers' rights to unionize and is consistent with a executive order signed by President Joe Biden, DHS said.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the department is committed to improving pay for the TSA workforce and will work with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) "to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. " The workers will also have access to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
"TSA employees are outstanding public servants who work on the frontlines, including throughout the pandemic, to keep the traveling American public safe," Mayorkas said. "They deserve the empowerment of collective bargaining and a compensation structure that recognizes and rewards them for their contributions to our safety and security."
Lawmakers note transportation security officers (TSOs) have been denied full collective bargaining rights and are also subject to a pay and performance system that does not track the government's primary wage system for federal workers and do not receive regular salary increases.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the announcement "a critical victory for tens of thousands of hardworking union members and will finally allow @TSA workers to bargain for their future like other federal workers."
He urged TSA "to immediately come to the table to reach a fair contract, and we call on Congress to finally codify these workers’ bargaining rights into law by passing the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act."
When Congress created the TSA after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, TSOs were excluded from protections most federal workers receive. They are subject to a determination by the TSA administrator.
AFGE National President Everett Kelley said members "have been fighting for nearly two decades to put an end to the system of separate and unequal treatment." The union added the decision is "not just going to help the workers by giving them more rights and better pay, it’s going to help reduce turnover so that the agency can benefit from experienced officers’ expertise."
TSA said last month it plans to hire another 1,000 officers by July 4, a peak U.S. travel period, after hiring 3,000 officers since Jan 1.
U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security committee, praised DHS's action and said "TSA frontline officers have been grossly underpaid and denied basic workplace rights for far too long." (Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Editing by Matthew Lewis)