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Airport security screeners join national union chapter

WASHINGTON — Thirteen federal security screeners from airports around the country signed up with a national union on Monday as part of a campaign to gain bargaining rights the government says they can't have.

Transportation Security Administration chief James Loy in January banned local bargaining units, saying they would be incompatible with the war on terror. Loy said he needed flexibility to make sudden changes in shift assignments in response to terror threats.

Les Marzke, a screener at Orlando International Airport, said high employee turnover and what he said were unsafe practices — such as requiring workers to search baggage for bombs with their bare hands — would continue until TSA workers have a voice on the job.

The 13 screeners joined a national chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. A national chapter can lobby Congress, file lawsuits and represent workers who have complaints about unfair labor practices, discrimination or safety, but it does not bargain for pay or work conditions.

Separately, the union has filed petitions with the Federal Labor Relations Authority to represent screeners at the bargaining table at nine airports, including LaGuardia International Airport and Chicago Midway Airport. It's also challenging Loy's order in federal court.

After Sept. 11, Congress ordered the government to replace airport screeners who worked for private companies with better-trained and better-paid federal employees to reduce high turnover. The screeners earn between $23,600 and $35,400 a year, with health care, life insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

The TSA says that flying is safer now because of the 4 percent turnover among the 56,000 passenger and baggage screeners, as of two weeks ago.