George W. Bush proved that he remains a fanatical advocate of privatization as he spearheaded a drive in the House to block a Senate bill that would federalize airport security. Bush succeeded in winning a razor-thin victory in the House but the final legislation depends on a House-Senate conference, which must reconcile the two versions of the airport security bills.
The Senate was so alarmed that private security agencies had permitted 19 terrorists to board four U.S. airliners Sept. 11 that they unanimously approved a bill Oct. 11 to take airport screening out of the hands of private corporations and hand it over to a newly established federal airport security service with about 30,000 screeners.
New proof that these private “for profit” security outfits are not up to the job came with the arrest at O’Hare Airport in Chicago Nov. 5 of Subash Gurung, a Nepalese citizen, who slipped through a luggage security checkpoint carrying seven knives, a stun gun and tear gas.
Security agents, employees of Atlanta-based Argenbright Security, Inc., did confiscate two folding knives the man was carrying in his pocket but failed to notice the other weapons in his luggage. United Airlines workers discovered them in a hand search of his luggage at the gate.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said, “The O’Hare failure was a case of dramatic proportions.” But not dramatic enough to change Bush’s mind.
The Senate measure would have ended decades of rapid turnover by these overworked screeners, many of whom earn barely $6.00 per hour. In their place would be federal workers at each of the nation’s 450 airports. They would earn a starting salary of $25,000, health benefits and clearly defined rules on how long they sit at the monitors screening luggage.
Bush worked feverishly with House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to push through the House a measure that favored the private security companies, even in the face of polls showing majority support for federalizing airport security. The “Texas Troika” eked out the 218-214 vote to reject the Senate plan Nov. 1.
“House Republican leaders frantically collected votes until the last moment,” The New York Times reported, “luring members their way with money for district projects, refunds for credit card companies and a broad measure offering the New York Port Authority, the airlines, airplane manufacturers, and security companies protection against liability claims made as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
New York Republicans, as the price for their votes, demanded language in the House bill limiting corporate liability for those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
After narrowly defeating the Senate bill, the House voted 286-139 Nov. 1 for the version without federalization. “Reject this intrusion of federal government mandates,” Armey ranted in a floor speech. “Put your confidence in the president.”
Armey stressed that federalizing airport security would extend union recognition to these workers, most of whom are now non-union.
The Democratic House leadership worked closely with the AFL-CIO, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants in support of the Senate plan. The AFL-CIO featured nationwide television ads with the message, “Congress deserves federal protection. So why not the rest of us?”
ALPA stated, “Federalizing the process of screening passengers and related security responsibilities will provide the highest level of security and make it uniform throughout the system.”
A General Services Administration report charged that screeners at some of the airports are paid the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, less than workers at fast food restaurants at the airports. The report revealed that the nationwide yearly turnover rate is 126 percent. Because more than four private corporations hold contracts at the airports, there is no uniformity in standards or performance.
“Many screeners have to work two or more jobs, leaving them tired and distracted as they scan thousands of objects per hour for tiny but potentially significant signs of danger,” charged a report by the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU report pointed out that screeners in Los Angeles and San Francisco formed a union and won a living wage and improved working conditions that also contributed to safer air travel.