Airport screeners protest firings

SAN FRANCISCO – Baggage screeners at San Francisco and Oakland airports carried out an informational picketline protest at the terminals and handed out flyers asking for public support to keep their jobs.

The jobs of some 1,300 San Francisco and Oakland Airport baggage screeners are threatened by the new Aviation and Security Act. Signed by President Bush Nov. 19, it calls for baggage screening now being performed by private contractors to become federalized. Under the new regulations, only U.S. citizens would be eligible for the jobs of baggage screeners. This would eliminate as much as 80 percent of the current work force at both airports.

Thousands of non-citizens working as screeners will find themselves out of a job. Even naturalized citizens will be losing their jobs if they have been citizens for less than five years.

The workers and their union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 790 and 1877, feel this is discriminatory since other airport personnel including pilots, flight attendants, reservation clerks and others are not required to be citizens to hold their jobs.

“Scapegoating immigrant workers is not the answer to our airport safety program. We know better,” said Das Lampras, Local 790 organizer.

“The current airport security system is not as good as it should be because the airlines and security companies are more concerned about higher profits for their top investors and executives than in improving airport safety,” he said.

“U.S. citizenship as one of the requirements for working as an airport screener does not make a safer work force. Legal oversight, working with upgraded screening equipment, receiving a living wage and appropriate benefits, with a voice on the job, are the answers to the problem.”

More than 50,000 members of U.S. armed forces are non-citizens. The law allows legal permanent residents to enlist in the military and serve on the front lines.

Through the efforts of the SEIU, wages for screeners have gone up from $6.25 an hour to $13 an hour, with benefits, and this has served to cut job turnover by more than 115 percent over the past three years.

Now, just when the job of baggage screener has become a better paid and more respected position, the federal government is preparing to remove most of these workers from their jobs, and at a time when finding any kind of job is becoming very difficult.

The union is seeking the help of Sen. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, all California Democrats to help resolve the problem.

Among such moves would be to include the two Bay Area airports in a pilot program which the Act allows, which would allow five airports nationally to be able to operate with private employers handling baggage screening.

One screener told the World, “We have been working hard serving the public all this time, and now they are kicking us out. It is not fair.”

Todd Tollefson contributed to this article.