Woman getting scanned by airport security. (Photo: Roebot)
In the wake of the failed attempt on Christmas Day to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) and other Republicans are seeking to revive their voter-rejected charges that Democrats are weak on security - while somehow blaming unions for airport security failings. In doing so, they're holding up the nomination of veteran counter-terrorism expert Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
As recapped by McClatchy Newspapers:
DeMint said in a statement that the attempted attack "is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA." He wants Southers to clarify his stand on unionizing the TSA, a shift that Democrats support.
Without collective bargaining, DeMint said, the TSA has "flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack."
If organized labor got involved, DeMint said, union bosses would have the power "to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports."
Sen. Harry Reid announced Tuesday that he would move forward on the delayed nomination of Erroll Southers to be TSA chief by seeking a cloture vote when the Senate returns in January. A spokesman for Reid called DeMint's opposition to allowing a nomination vote "disgraceful." (With both houses of Congress closed for the holidays, a spokesperson for Senator DeMint's office did not reply to a written inquiry by Truthout requesting comment.)
What's the truth about the impact of unions on our security?
In interviews with Truthout, one of the nation's most respected aviation security experts, Douglas Laird, and the president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, Marshall McClain, have sharply attacked the notion that unionized security officers weaken public safety. After all, most cops, firemen and emergency responders across the country already are unionized.
"My union card doesn't sit between my bulletproof vest and my willingness to put my life on the line," says Marshall McClain, who works on a canine unit scoping out contraband chemicals and drugs brought by would-be passengers.
He and his colleagues will do what's needed to protect the public, contrary to right-wing falsehoods about their insisting on following petty union rules that thwart effectiveness. For instance, in just the last few days at the Los Angeles airport, McClain observes, all vacations were canceled and a full contingent of officers was placed on duty. "Management has the discretion to change the days [of our shifts] and maximize deployment," he says. "There was no process or meeting or a conference about this. The chief just said, `Vacations are canceled and this is going to happen.' His [DeMint's] claims about unionization and homeland security have no validity."
Indeed, the Homeland Security Department's customs and border patrol officers who regularly face criminals are already unionized, with no sign of the common right-wing mythology about union members: there are no goldbrickers loafing back at the union hall while drug smugglers and border-crossing terrorists are being ignored. As Bill Fletcher, the American Federation of Government Employees' field services director, says, "It's a completely baseless argument." He adds, "It's a game of sabotage: Republicans are playing to basic fears, and obstructing the appointment of a TSA administrator to make it nearly impossible for TSA to recognize and address problems in any kind of systematic way. It's all obstruction to make an anti-union point - and to disrupt the administration's ability to function in any way they can."
The critics note, with varying degrees of harshness, that by Senator DeMint placing a "hold" on President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, he has apparently damaged the ability of that agency to implement long overdue improvements that could save American lives.
Douglas Laird, the former chief of airport security for Northwest Airlines, and president of Laird and Associates security consultants, says, "It's critical to appoint a strong leader to move the bureaucracy forward [on reforms], and it's a disservice to the American public not to move forward" because of opposition to unions.
The agency needs a serious overhaul. He points to a continuing series of GAO reports on the agency's failures since the Bush era to meet virtually any deadlines, fix its woeful mismanagement of the "no-fly" list that kept the late Sen. Edward Kennedy off planes while allowing terrorist suspects on them, or deploy at least 150 whole-body scanners (although privacy concerns have also slowed their use). "With good, powerful leadership, projects move forward at a better pace," he says. "At the TSA, [major new] projects are never done on time." (He also noted, of course, that day-to-day operations can continue to function for a while without a permanent administrator; the current acting head is a Bush administration hold-over.)
Laird also contends that the agency is lagging in restoring the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System(CAPPS), developed first by the airline industry, that cross-checks databases to help flag individuals who could be traveling under false identities or pose terrorism risks (it flagged ten of the 9/11 hijackers who were let on anyway after questioning). Yet, although this high-tech approach has faced continuing questions about privacy dangers, it underscores what Laird and others see as a major loophole in the entire system of watchlists designed to protect the public: "The feeling was 'we'd better look at the names.' But if you're a good terrorist, you've going to have a new identity with a valid passport. It's a weak system."
But the aviation security system can't be improved on a variety of fronts, especially at the TSA, until there's a strong, innovative leader to head that agency.
Even DeMint's harshest critics in the union movement, though, haven't stooped to using extremist, fear-mongering rhetoric to tar him as abetting terrorism. They aren't accusing DeMint of potentially having blood on his hands. Nor are they charging the union-bashing senator with willfully allowing innocent men, women and children to be blown up in midair by wily terrorists who could outwit underpaid, demoralized airport security screeners, all so he can score cheap political points against unions at the behest of his corporate donors. Obviously, such ugly politicization of national security for partisan political purposes would be unthinkable coming from any major political party's leaders or its allies.
Still, his critics take a dim view of his disparaging comments on the impact of unions on front-line responders - in their view, it's essentially a smear against the dedication, flexibility and courage of all public security officers, who are overwhelmingly unionized. Citing other unionized forces, McClain observes, "You can't expect anyone to believe that the LAPD, the SWAT team, the county Sheriff's Department officers are going to shirk their duties because they're union members." And, he notes, they're all legally barred from striking.
McClain's police union has, in fact, worked closely with TSA nominee Erroll Southers, the counter-terrorism expert and former FBI agent who is now the Los Angeles World Airport's Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He cited one example of Southers's mindset as a "no-nonsense" official: In a matter of a few months, Southers was able to cut through years of red tape that had thwarted the department's tactical forces from getting a grant needed to purchase powerful new rifles they needed to augment their security detail for El Al, the Israeli airline. "His attitude is: if it makes sense, get it implemented now," says McClain.
So it's especially galling to McClain that DeMint and fellow Republicans are blocking a vote on Southers.
"I think the delay is a definite blow to public safety by not having someone in charge who is responsible for screening passengers," he says. The TSA now, he contends, "is a leaderless ship."
DeMint's anti-union assault against Southers shouldn't come as a big surprise. As the senator who vowed to "break" Obama over health care, he's also missed few opportunities to lash out at unions or the Employee Free Choice Act designed to level the playing field for organizing rights. He even introduced his own counter-measure to gut the Employee Free Choice Act and spread the myth that the pro-union legislation would bar workers from using a secret ballot or force tiny companies to pay auto industry-scale wages, even though current and proposed labor laws exempt such companies from having to accept unions. He also helped lead the opposition to the auto bailout, blaming the industry's failures on the auto unions.
Naturally, after a 23-year-old Nigerian got on an airplane with explosives although his powerful banker father warned CIA and State Department officials about his son's terrorism ties and the CIA knew beforehand that Yemen-based terrorists were prepping a Nigerian for a terrorist attack, it was time once again for Jim DeMint to blame ... the unions.
So on CNN, FOX and other news outlets earlier this week, he made his case against allowing collective bargaining for airport screeners who work for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) because, he insists, that potentially hampers effective responses to terrorism. That, at least, is his ostensible justification for putting a hold on the nomination.
Yet, even DeMint's and Republican attacks on the TSA itself in the Nigerian case are wildly off-base. As terrorism expert Richard Clarke pointed out Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," countering rising GOP calls to fire Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano: "She inherited a TSA that needed a lot of work, and she appointed a great guy to run the Transportation Security Agency, but the Senate hasn't confirmed him. No, I think the problem lies with the intelligence community, not at Homeland Security."
Even so, as approvingly noted by right-wing bloggers and of course Fox News, DeMint proclaimed:
The president has downplayed the threat of terror since he took office, and he waited eight months to even nominate Mr. Southers for this position. And then he wanted him approved in secret with no debate and no recorded vote in the Senate.
And this is all in the context of the president promising the unions that he will submit our airport security to collective bargaining with union bosses.
This is the last thing we need to do right now. Our airport security needs to have massive flexibility, the ability to move people around and change protocols. And it makes absolutely no sense to submit the security of our airports and the passengers here in this country to collective bargaining with unions.
In truth, contends the AFGE's Bill Fletcher, "Collective bargaining brings with it improved security for passengers. It's precisely on issues of morale and training of workers where what you have now is a completely unstable situation."
He also points out that when the TSA was established in 2001, its workers were actually allowed to be represented by a union - in this case, AFGE - but they were soon flatly barred by the Bush administration, under the authority of the law creating the new Homeland Security department, from engaging in collective bargaining. That action effectively neutralized the impact any union could have. But contrary to much of the latest news reporting, as the union's press releases show, "The union currently has approximately 12,000 dues-paying TSA members at more than 100 airports in 36 union Locals nationwide."
The AFL-CIO joined in a campaign earlier in December to protest at airports on behalf of collective bargaining rights for TSA workers. A bill to restore collective bargaining rights and grant stronger whistleblower protection for TSA workers passed a House committee in September, but it's stalled since.
Fletcher observes that in seeking collective bargaining, the screeners are seeking more than added pay and benefits: "The TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] are concerned about the long-term stability of the agency; they're looking for leadership. They want to know they're going to get the training and the equipment in place. The TSOs don't want to do this on the cheap. They want to protect the public."
Unfortunately, he argues, "These Republican demagogues are not trying to resolve this situation." Drawing on a metaphor from Hollywood teen-age films, he says, "They're playing 'chicken' with the administration - and the people standing between these two approaching cars are the TSOs and the public."
And next time around, if DeMint's union-busting hold on TSA leadership still remains and we face more massive intelligence failures, there could be a terrorism crash coming we won't be able to escape.