The union representing TSA workers entered negotiations with the agency that are more focused on allowing workers to wear shorts than the staffing levels it now claims are responsible for wait times that have caused thousands of passengers to miss their flights.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 42,000 airport security workers, blamed staffing shortages for the delays that have wreaked havoc on American airports over the past two weeks. The union called on Congress to approve the hiring of 6,000 new TSA screeners—who would presumably become dues-paying union members—to cut wait times that have reached up to three hours.
TSA currently employs 42,000 workers, down from 47,000 in 2013. AFGE President J. David Cox called the delays a "direct result of Congress’ failure to give TSA the money it needs."
"Instead of ensuring that TSA has adequate funding to maintain sufficient staffing, Congress has imposed an arbitrary cap on the number of full-time TSA officers," the union said in a Monday blog post.
TSA first ratified a union contract in 2012 after an 11-year campaign to organize the workers—a move hailed by President Obama during his reelection campaign. Its first contract expired in December, and the bargaining agents have been in talks with the TSA since July 2015.
Workers have been voting to approve portions of the contract piecemeal. The union took the agency to arbitration to settle several area of dispute that it could not successfully negotiate in collective bargaining. One of the main areas of dispute was whether workers could wear shorts or different types of jackets.
"There are times that the employees are working in areas that shorts would be an appropriate uniform, as well as different types of jackets. There are times of the year they need heavier jackets than they do at other times of the year, and various combinations of uniforms," Cox told Federal News Radio in January.
Clothing also played a key role in the first contract when AFGE officials successfully demanded three free pairs of pants and shirts, as well as a $317 subsidy for future uniforms.
"This agreement will mean better working conditions, fair evaluation practices and safer workplaces, and in doing so, it will improve morale," Cox said in a statement.
A union spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon that he was unsure whether staffing levels were a part of the current negotiations, though he said the union has been concerned that shortages could cause delays.
"It’s been a concern for a while because Congress has consistently cut back," he said. "It’s finally coming to a breaking point."
A TSA spokeswoman declined to comment on the collective bargaining talks since negotiations are ongoing. She said that the decline in staffing did play a role in recent delays, as did increased traffic volume and lagging enrollment in the TSA Pre-Check program, which is designed to speed up screening.
"TSA projected large numbers of travelers would enroll in the program, which would allow lower staffing needs. This led to budget requests of fewer TSO positions. Unfortunately the number of enrollees in the program has not been as high as projected," she said in an email.
Labor watchdogs said that the union’s renewed focus on staffing is an opportunistic attempt to boost funding. Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, called the timing of the delays "very suspicious" given the union’s ongoing effort to get a new contract in place.
"It is very suspicious that this problem is popping up now, especially while negotiations between the TSA and AFGE union officials is ongoing," Semmens said. "It would hardly be the first time that union bosses inconvenience the public as a tactic for getting what they want from elected officials."
Semmens said that the contract dispute points to a pitfall of public sector unions: the system allows union officials rather than elected lawmakers to set major public policy.
"It is a clear example of the anti-democratic aspect of all government union monopoly bargaining, where instead of elected public officials determining public policy, union bargaining requires the government to negotiate and ultimately compromise the public interest," Semmens said.
Cox called the suggestion that the union is behind the slowdown "absolutely false." The union does not have the ability to bargain over staffing levels.
"Allegations of a work slowdown at TSA are absolutely false," Cox said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon. "Congress has not only failed to respond to the simple laws of supply and demand by providing adequate funding, but have actively diverted funds meant for air security to other projects."