Airport screeners on the bottom of the employment heap

Gina Comparini Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 12, 2001

The terrorist attacks that closed airports here and across the nation came at a time when the Service Employees International Union has a major drive underway to organize luggage screeners at Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma and Los Angeles International Airports. 

“It’s hard to comment right now, this is such a tragedy,” said SEIU organizer Andrea Dehlendorf as she watched the news of the explosions from her home in the East Bay. 

Screeners are the first line of resistance against terrorist attacks that originate at airports. From 1990 to 1999, screeners located nearly 23,000 firearms and explosive devices, resulting in more than 9,400 arrests, according to a June 2000 U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress on airport security. 

An estimated 18,000 screeners work at the nation’s airports, employed by almost 100 different security companies, according to the GAO. 

SEIU is targeting approximately 400 workers on the West Coast employed by Huntleigh USA, a subcontractor of Southwest Airlines. About 100 of those workers are at Oakland Airport, Dehlendorf said. 

Many of Huntleigh’s security employees, who make as little as $7 an hour and do not receive benefits, are responsible for everything from detecting explosives in luggage to screening boarding passengers for hand weapons, according to the union. 

The Federal Aviation Administration and airlines share the responsibility of screening passengers and carry-on baggage and the agency has long expressed concerns about the screeners’ ability to detect dangerous objects. In a June 2000 report to Congress on airport security, the GAO noted serious concerns by airline regulators about the impact of low pay, poor training and high turnover on this workforce.  

“Not only has turnover been an historical problem, but it is worse today than it was in the past,” the GAO said, noting that in 1994 the turnover at some U.S. airports was 100 percent in a 10-month period. The federal watchdog agency said high turnover rates mean that “checkpoints are rarely staffed by screeners with much experience,” reflecting both the low pay and monotony of the job. Screeners “who do not have the necessary knowledge, skills, or abilities to perform the work effectively” are often expected to work for wages lower than those paid in some airport fast food restaurants, the GAO said. 

Over the past three years, the SEIU has successfully organized Globe and Argenbright employees at Los Angeles International Airport, Dehlendorf said, adding that those workers now earn $9 an hour and receive benefits. She said Huntleigh is resisting the union and has refused to speak to SEIU officials. 

Officials at Huntleigh USA could not be reached immediately for comment, and Brandi King a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas said the carrier could not comment about the wages Huntleigh pays security workers. 

But SEIU officials have maintained that the carriers themselves do have responsibility for how their subcontracted employees are paid. “Those workers are providing a service to Southwest,” Dehlendorf said following a Labor Day weekend rally at Oakland Airport that drew more than 100 picketers. “Working conditions directly affect Southwest, so they should care.” 

“Our position all along has been that wage and benefit standards for the workers who are responsible for security at airports are substandard,” Dehlendorf said. “We just hope that there are people who will listen to the screeners, who have a lot of suggestions about how they can do their job better.”