Would a TSA Strike Force an End to the Shutdown?


As the current partial federal government shutdown drags on and many federal employees continue to go without pay, some pundits have suggested that one way to end the shutdown is for Transportation Security Administration employees to strike.

This makes some intuitive sense in that Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) are the most widely encountered federal employees by the general public, with nearly 50 percent of American adults flying commercial in the last year, according to the Ipsos 2018 Air Travelers in America survey. And it’s absolutely true that abandoned security checkpoints at airports would be extremely detrimental to air travelers and the broader economy. The thinking goes this highly visible disruption in day-to-day life would drive an outraged public to demand that a veto-proof congressional majority end the shutdown and that Republicans in Congress would acquiesce to this intense public pressure.

But given the present administration’s general hostility to government employee unions and the law, here is what is most likely to happen if TSA’s transportation security officers were to strike:

  1. Striking TSOs would be instantly fired and barred from future federal employment under 49 U.S.C. § 44935 note (giving the TSA administrator near-absolute authority over workforce matters on extremely broad national security grounds) and 5 U.S.C. §§ 7311(3)-(4) (prohibiting federal employment of any person who strikes).
  2. The union representing TSOs, the American Federation of Government Employees, would be decertified under 5 U.S.C. § 7120(f), as striking or failing to stop a strike is an illegal unfair labor practice under 5 U.S.C. § 7116(b)(7).
  3. Military personnel would temporarily augment the non-striking TSO workforce.

This isn’t exactly a common occurrence, but it is basically what happened when President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and had their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, decertified. Courts upheld these Reagan executive actions. PATCO was stripped of its ability to represent controllers and the 11,400 striking controllers were put permanently out of government work. Those striking controllers were barred from federal service until 1993 when President Clinton specifically lifted their ban, but very few returned.

Becoming a fully-certified air traffic controller generally takes five to eight years compared to one month of classroom training and three months of on-the-job training to become a full TSO. TSA’s workforce turnover rate was already extremely high prior to the shutdown. Given these facts, it is highly unlikely that TSA’s employee union will allow a strike. There’s a reason why the ghost of PATCO haunts the American labor movement: the law is clear that strikes by federal employees are illegal and history suggests a motivated administration can weather a federal employee strike much better than striking employees.