News & Politics

Holiday Harassment

Making TSA screeners’ lives miserable is an ugly response to a policy problem

As the holiday travel rush approaches, it has brought with it a new and unexpected seasonal trend: resistance to the Transportation Security Administration’s screening policies. The Washington City Paper’s Mike Riggs wrote that screenings and pat-downs give him a better sense of the sexual harassment women experience on a regular basis. Popular tech blog Gizmodo is flooding the site with posts about screening equipment and people who are standing up to screening. And the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has become a key voice behind making November 24 National Opt-Out Day, suggesting that air travelers insist on a pat-down rather than walking through scanners and that they make the experience as unpleasant as possible for the screeners who have to do the searches.

There’s no question that some TSA procedures are invasive, time-consuming, and potentially unnecessary. But there’s a really ugly streak in suggesting, as Goldberg does, that the best way to change TSA policy is to sexually harass the employees who are required to carry those policies out.

“While on the one hand—or in both hands, as the case may be—your genitals are being groped by a low-paid federal-government employee, it is no great pleasure—and certainly no elevating spiritual experience—to be the one who frisks people’s crotches in an airport, which is why I hope National Opt-Out Day causes hardworking TSA employees to tell their bosses, ‘Enough,’ ” Goldberg wrote over the weekend. “Come November 24th, here’s an idea you might try to make the day extra-special. It’s a one-word idea: Kilts . . . . If you want to go the extra extra mile, I suggest commando-style kilt-wearing.”

Cute as Goldberg probably thinks his suggestion is, it’s worth remembering a couple of things. TSA screeners are more vulnerable than most federal employees. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the civil service, the agency’s employees don’t have collective-bargaining rights yet, which means it’s more difficult for them to negotiate with TSA over working conditions and policies and procedures. There isn’t even consensus over which union should represent TSA screeners. Both the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union have been organizing Transportation Security Officers for years, but it was only last week that the unions won the right to have an election to see which one will represent screeners.

Salaries for TSA screeners start at $17,083, plus locality payments depending on where screeners are stationed. When Goldberg started at the Atlantic in 2007, Howard Kurtz reported that David Bradley, who owns the Atlantic Media Company, was paying “top journalists,” presumably including Goldberg, up to $350,000. That kind of cushion makes it possible to push back against your employer in ways a low-five-figure salary doesn’t, particularly when you don’t have a major professional reputation or collective-bargaining rights to protect you.

“[TSA screeners] understand the reservations the public may have about certain types of security procedures and strive to conduct themselves in the most professional manner at all times,” says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “Regardless of their objections to specific security procedures, I would ask that the public and the members of the media respect these officers and the important work that they do.”

Even if screeners were in a strong position to push TSA on security policies, making their working conditions miserable isn’t likely to inspire a strong sense of solidarity between Transportation Security Officers and the traveling public. Wearing a kilt and no underwear to a screening isn’t advocacy. It’s sexual harassment. And it’s sexual harassment of a group of employees who have fewer workplace protections than other security workers such as cops. That’s not cute, funny, or effective.

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