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By Professor David Yamada
July 1, 2002

In the hours and weeks that followed the September 11 attacks, thousands of unionized police officers and firefighters representing the diversity of America secured the damaged sites and sifted through the horrible destruction. Few events in American history have more strongly attested to the value of having dedicated public employees on the front lines of our civil defense network.

Nevertheless, the Bush Administration's proposed Homeland Security legislation threatens to make second class employees of federal airport security workers who are hired to screen passengers and to inspect packages and baggage. If Congress approves the bill in its current form, newly hired airport screening personnel could be denied all basic labor protections. These include the rights to join a union, to negotiate over wages and working conditions, to be free from discrimination and harassment, and to be protected against retaliation for whistle blowing.

This very real possibility is rooted in a little-known loophole in the recently enacted Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The loophole allows the Department of Transportation, "notwithstanding any other provision of law," to "employ, appoint, discipline, terminate, and fix the compensation, terms, and conditions of employment" for all federal airport screening personnel. Read literally, this allows the DOT to fix summarily all terms of employment for airport security workers, without regard to any existing federal labor law protections.

The recently proposed Homeland Security bill would transfer the airport screening functions specified in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to the new Department of Homeland Security. The bill further provides that the Secretary of Homeland Security will be granted all powers previously accorded to the federal agencies absorbed into the new Department. This means that the Secretary will inherit the same alarming carte blanche authority originally granted to the DOT to unconditionally mandate all terms of employment for airport security screeners.

This short, seemingly insignificant provision carries huge implications. First, it obviously means that thousands of new federal employees could be denied their basic labor rights at the whim of a single Cabinet member. In addition, it would send an unprecedented message that fundamental worker protections, by their very existence, are inconsistent with the goal of national security. Indeed, if airport baggage screeners can be required to give up these civil rights under the guise of national security, can police officers, firefighters, and even privately employed transportation workers be far behind?

Finally, stripping these employees of their labor protections would defeat the goal of hiring a skilled and motivated workforce for this important security function. Recall that one of the original concerns in light of September 11 was that, because airport screening workers were so poorly paid, the security companies had trouble attracting qualified personnel, and that many of these workers reported for duty exhausted from working other jobs to pay their bills. How many qualified, trustworthy individuals will apply for and remain in a job in which giving up virtually all basic legal protections is a condition of employment?

Hard-won legal protections for workers should not be sacrificed in the name of national security without valid, convincing reasons for doing so. In this case, the manner in which airport security workers have been put at risk of losing their rights smacks of an insidious attempt to "sneak one through" Congress, taking undue advantage of the public's understandable fears about the safety of air travel. Because the Aviation and Transportation Security Act already spells out in detail the necessary skill levels and security clearances for airport screeners, there is no principled reason also to require a wholesale removal of their labor safeguards.

Consideration of the Homeland Security bill now provides Congress with an opportunity to undo the hidden damage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush stood in solidarity with police officers and firefighters at Ground Zero. Against a background of terrible tragedy, he symbolically affirmed the importance of rank-and-file public workers in American society. Hopefully the letter of the proposed Homeland Security law will be amended to reflect the spirit of that vital gesture.

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David Yamada is a co-founder of the Workers' Rights Committee of Americans for Democratic Action and a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. postۙ!XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXcate ۙ!Lscat @ۙ!Lsaux >SURL6http://www.adaction.org/yamada.homelandsecur.oped.html