September 10, 2004

No Unions Please, You Are Baggage Screeners

By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA — In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, President Bush portrayed himself as a defender of working people and labor rights. But the Federal government, which is responsible for enforcing the union rights of the nation’s workers, has just fired a worker for the crime of joining one.

On Jan. 9, 2003, the Bush administration banned collective bargaining for over 40,000 airport screeners. Admiral James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which employs them, claimed, “fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly respond to threats. That can mean changes in work assignments and other conditions of employment that are not compatible with the duty to bargain with labor unions.”

Had this been the private sector, or even those remaining parts of the Federal government where normal labor rights still apply, Loy’s action would itself have been illegal. But since Sept. 11, 2001, the terrain for labor relations has changed dramatically. Thousands of screeners were fired when Congress created the TSA, which refused to rehire them because most were non-citizens.

Then, unions were prohibited among TSA’s new employees. TSA spokesperson Chris Rhatigan justified the ban. “Collective bargaining would be incompatible with the nation’s safety,” he said.

This spring, the government moved one step further in its denial of union rights. John Gavello, a screener at the Oakland, Calif., airport, was fired when he tried to organize his fellow workers.

When Loy banned unions a year-and-a-half ago, the new TSA workforce was in the midst of a major organizing drive. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) had filed petitions to bargain for thousands of workers at LaGuardia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago Midway, Greensboro, Harlingen/McAllen/Brownsville and Columbus. More workers were forming organizing committees at JFK, Tampa, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlantic City and Des Moines.

Loy’s edict stopped the drive in its tracks.

Many workers, however, still wanted to get organized. Gavello was one of them. After getting his screener’s job a year ago, he noticed that some workers had to wait weeks for their paychecks. When he was asked to work Sundays, TSA refused to pay overtime. “People were afraid to complain,” he says, “because management would pull them in, accuse them of making mistakes, and interrogate them.”

Gavello thought a union was needed. Last November, before talking to other workers, he told his supervisor he intended to post union literature on the employee bulletin board. His immediate superior had no problem with that, and he went ahead.

Someone must have checked with Washington, however. On Nov. 20, Gavello received a written warning that said, “You are not allowed to enter into any discussion or conversation about your union, or solicit membership in or for any union... while on duty as a TSA Transportation Security Screener.”

The next day, he was accused of talking union with another worker. “I told them I’d done nothing wrong,” Gavello says. He asked for a witness to his interrogation by supervisors, a right guaranteed at the time even to non-union workers by the Weingarten Rule, issued in the 1970s by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). His request was denied, and Gavello was suspended for two weeks. Early this year, the Bush administration’s appointees to the NLRB announced that the Weingarten Rule no longer applies to non-union workers.

Gavello wasn’t immediately fired, but TSA began building a file on him. Gavello continued to protest shortcomings in the workplace, and on Feb. 26, faxed a copy of a complaint to TSA in Washington, DC. He also sent a copy to Gany Frieder, an AFGE lawyer helping him with his case. TSA called this a breach of security and fired him.

The Alice-In-Wonderland process didn’t stop there, however. In April, Gavello and his lawyer filed suit over the firing in U.S. District Court, saying it violated his Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of association. The government responded that Federal employees can’t use the courts to resolve workplace problems. Instead, they are required to use civil service procedures.

But in practically the next sentence, TSA attorneys said that Gavello couldn’t do that either. The same order that banned collective bargaining at TSA also suspended civil service’s grievance procedures and whistle-blower protections.

According to the government, Constitutional rights end where the baggage lines begin.

The Federal government is still the authority responsible for enforcing the laws that guarantee almost all workers, including Federal employees, the right to a union. And the preamble to National Labor Relations Act still declares that workers not only can, but should, come together in unions to bargain with their employers. This is the bedrock of all U.S. labor protection legislation.

But Gavello’s case highlights a growing conflict of interest. How can the Federal government protect workers’ right to organize, while at the same time saying it can fire one of its own employees with impunity when he tries to do so? As the case sits before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin in San Francisco, the right to a union hangs in the balance.

“My case could decide whether workers have rights, and not just at airports,” Gavello says. “Right now, it feels like we don’t have any rights at all.”

David Bacon ( ,is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is The Children of NAFTA.

Return to the Frontpage