Airport Screeners Caught in the Crossfire, Called “Perverts, Creeps”

As airline passengers revolt against new security procedures, Transportation Security Officers are bearing the brunt of the public’s reaction. “We are verbally assaulted on a daily basis by people who don’t understand,” said one officer.

Screeners place the blame, in part, on the way the Transportation Security Administration introduced the new rules. The change took effect in late October, but the flying public was given no warning.

Valyria Lewis, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 555 in Memphis, said that even TSA workers had only two weeks’ notice to get trained in the new procedures. “We were pushed, pushed, pushed through training,” Lewis said. When the new procedures went into effect, “the public wasn’t informed and I can’t say that I blame them” for being shocked by the searches.

Passengers can refuse the new full-body scans—the machines are criticized for slight radiation exposure and imaging that sees through clothes—but then they are subjected to much more intrusive pat-downs than those TSA administered previously. The pat-downs now include touching the crotches of both men and women. Pat-downs of specific areas may follow if the officer viewing the scanner can’t identify something on the x-ray image.

TSA managers say the procedures are aimed at avoiding incidents like that of the “underwear bomber,” who attempted to detonate explosives on a plane over Detroit last Christmas.

But civil liberties groups say the pat-downs, which are conducted by an officer of the same sex as the passenger, are too intrusive. Some passengers compared the searches to a sexual assault.


Officers hear about it on a daily basis. They say that passengers call them molesters, perverts, and creeps, and ask them if it gives them a “thrill” to do the searches.

One said that passenger reactions make it hard to face going to work every day. Writing anonymously to a blog, another said, “People fail to understand that neither of us are happy about the intrusive pat-down I am carrying out.”

“We get caught in the crossfire. We don’t make the rules, we’re just enforcing them,” Lewis said. A passenger recently told her co-worker during a pat-down, “I know you’re really enjoying this.”

“In that respect the officer is being assaulted,” she said. “But it’s only a select few you get that from; the consensus of passengers understand. We get a lot of thank-you’s.”

AFGE says the Transportation Security Administration needs to do a better job of telling passengers why it has enhanced screening and what their rights are. The union suggested that TSA give every passenger a pamphlet explaining the new procedures. AFGE President John Gage said the lack of information “has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of TSOs.”



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Only 3 percent of passengers are getting pat-downs, and the numbers may be smaller where new x-ray machines are in use, Lewis said. This is because people with internal metal—knee replacements, for example—can be scanned with the new machines, unlike the past when they set off alarms on walk-through metal detectors.


It’s possible that if workers had more say, these unpleasant surprises could have been avoided, according to Cyndi Jenson, president of AFGE Local 1120 in Salt Lake City. “We could see a storm brewing once we got into training mode,” she said. “We were trying to be lighthearted but we could see that members of the public would have a problem” with the new procedures.

Without a union, Jenson said, “our voice doesn’t get heard, and now people want to sue us. Who is going to protect us? We don’t have rights on the job.”

Jenson worries that the uproar is going to add fuel to Republican calls to privatize airport security.

Transportation Security Officers were denied the right to collective bargaining when the agency was formed after 9/11. Two unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, are now vying to represent TSOs.

In response to a petition from AFGE, the Federal Labor Relations Authority agreed November 12 to a representation election, which is expected early next year. AFGE organizers estimate the total workforce is between 30,000 and 40,000, but the numbers are currently unpublished. AFGE claims 12,000 TSOs as dues-paying members, in 38 locals around the country.

Although they lack bargaining rights, AFGE has been able to represent workers in disciplinary proceedings, said union organizer Terry Meadows. The TSA employee handbook allows workers to designate a representative, so AFGE has been providing representatives to argue cases on behalf of workers, and winning some. However, the proceedings are still controlled by management, Meadows noted. “We could have a really good case” and still lose.


When the Bush administration set up the TSA, officials argued that union rights could compromise security. TSA Administrator John Pistole, an Obama appointee, is thought to be more accommodating, and the two competing unions are pushing Pistole to grant collective bargaining rights for the TSA workforce.

At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on intensified screening measures, Republican leaders warned Pistole against making a decision for collective bargaining. "If you decide to . . . allow for collective bargaining among the TSA workforce,” Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson told Pistole, “there would be an upheaval in Congress and serious efforts to prevent that from happening."

But there has been an upheaval in Congress around collective bargaining rights since TSA was formed, Lewis noted. Referring to Senator Hutchinson, Lewis said, “If she’s ready to fight, we’ll get on our boxing gloves, too.”

Jenny Brown was a co-editor of Labor


Gaia (not verified) | 12/15/10

A lot of the time I will see a law being put into place, not because it's the right thing to do. They do it knowing the consensus of people will think, at least the government is doing something. That being said there will always be an upside to the bad, and a bad side to the good. When they actually do catch people with these intrusive searches, and save you life. You won't feel so bad about it. As for the security guards that have to apply these searches. You know they have to hate searching you in that manner. It's intrusive, disrespectable, uncomfortable, and awkward as all get out. There main job is to protect everyone traveling, and to make sure everyone gets to where they are going safely. This job is no laughing matter, and you really should keep that in mind while going on those flights. In my opinion the searches have to be done, and the people giving the searches need to make sure they act professional.

lycophidion (not verified) | 11/24/10

Whether they are "trade unionists" or not, TSA screeners, "just doing their job" are carrying out a significantly repressive function, meant to heighten the xenophobic and racist fears that justify wars in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, as well as racial profiling in the U.S. And these "security measures" are meant to further atomize and passify a public beset by crisis, impressing upon it the assurance -- and the threat -- that "Big Brother" is watching, and indeed, touching and controlling the most intimate sides of their lives.

These policies are OF A PIECE with all of the repressive measures undertaken by the current U.S. administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessor, including extension of domestic spying, permitted extrajudicial assassinations of U.S. citizens (not that any assassinations are tolerable) and expansion of the definition of "aiding terrorists" to potentially include peace groups. Etc. Etc.

Those employees -- particularly the decision-makers, but not exempting the floor-level employees -- *should* be made aware that their actions are NOT acceptable and they may be held accountable, whether by rightfully outraged citizens, or in a courtroom. In fact, I would add that an uncritical article of this type has NO place in a journal dedicated to democratic union reform, particularly one that has espoused, from time to time, the concept of "social justice trade unionism." At the very least, such an article needs to be seriously contextualized. But, then again, I suppose this is one of the traps that narrow trade unionists fall into...

BeckyMonroe (not verified) | 11/23/10

It is very clear that the TSA employees, referred to as "These people" have NO police powers. All of their work is routine in nature, the folks that are fighting to have a voice are functioning more as assembly line workers than any sort of law enforcement officials.

The officers who are members of AFGE are in fact only following the directives mandated by TSA. These officers have no official ability to change or modify the rules. Unlike over aggressive police officers they have no arrest powers they have no ability to operate outside of the confines of the airport.

There is no real comparison to police officers. They are treated horrible by a layer of management that would be VERY comfortable in a private sector unionbusting campaign, because that is the way much of TSA management acts and behaves.

The issues we as citizens are in an uproar about should be directed to the layer of management that was appointed by the Bush administration, THEY are the POWER hungry wolves banging on freedom's door. They took away all workplace rights for these TSA officers, and yes now they seem to be getting carried away our rights as US Citizens.

The officers are forbidden to discuss the details of security examples that have been successful while putting them in harms way. So please give them a break, and yes they are only doing as they are instructed.

They have been denied the right to collective bargaining as most all other US citizens enjoy.

They are our brothers and sisters in the labor movement, without a doubt.

lycophidion (not verified) | 11/23/10

Why do you defend these people? They are cops. Do you also try to "take the point of view" of cops who stop and frisk largely Black and Latino youth? The police have unions. That does not make them proletarians, much less part of the labor movement. The TSA screeners should catch hell. They are carrying out a function that has NOTHING to do with terrorism, and everything to do with JUSTIFYING the "war on terrorism" and asserting the "Big Brother" role of the bourgeois state. Their actions are not justified by assertions that they "are only following orders." Remember Nuremburg, for what it's worth...

UnionGirl (not verified) | 11/23/10

"These People" are mothers, fathers, sons & daughters who place their lives on the line every day. Every time "these people" check a bag... could indeed be the LAST time "these people" check a bag. "These People" have recently been under fire for WHAT "These People" are required to do. Images of the events of 9/11, Richard Reid's Shoes, London Heathrow terrorists (liquid bomb plot), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Christmas underwear bomber) are my reminder of WHY "These People" do what is required. You don't have to like what "These People" do; I only ask that you respect why "These People" do it, and above this, respect the officers who risk their own personal safety for the sake of the safety of millions of others. I will NEVER forget! "You people" seem to have lost sight of those events. Until you take the oath to protect and defend the United States against ALL ENEMIES both FOREIGN & DOMESTIC, Until you turn on your TV, watch an air transportation terrorism attempt carried out on a day you were on duty, until you have bowed your head, searched your head and your heart for a moment of clarity and prayed that nothing that you did or failed to do resulted in any "attempt" whether successful or foiled, until the responsibility of national security is placed on your shoulders & engrained in your heart; then and only then will you be in a position to cast a stone from your glass house! “These People” are “Our People”

Valyria Lewis
President Local 555
American Federation of Government Employees