A unionized Transportation Security Administration threatens to undermine the flexibility required by the federal agency, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned yesterday.

“I was part of the [Bush] administration when we built the TSA, and the department concluded for a variety of reasons, including the flexibility of the workforce, that we shouldn’t unionize,” Ridge said at an event about aviation security.

Ridge said former TSA administrators opposed unionization for good reason -- and urged current Administrator John Pistole to be cautious as he reverses agency policy and allows transportation security officers to vote for collective union representation for the first time.

“It appears that this administration and Administrator Pistole have decided that, in the end, it will be unionized … but I think, if they’re going to go down that path, I hope that they give those … who have responsibility of the security ... plenty of latitude with regard to employment, with regard to hours, with regard to responsibilities because it’s just not an arena where you want to have everything [tied] to a process that may take months when the security officer has hours or maybe minutes to make those decisions.”

Under the legislation that created the TSA, Congress expressly granted the TSA administrator sole authority to establish the terms and conditions of employment for security officers at airports, according to a TSA fact sheet. Past administrators all prohibited collective bargaining -- but last month Pistole ignored that precedent and issued a framework for TSA unionization.

The framework will take effect if -- in an election that began March 9 and ends April 19 -- a majority of TSA officers vote for exclusive union representation. Under this framework, TSA officers would be able to collectively bargain at the national level on certain non-security employment issues, such as shift bids, transfers and awards. The framework prohibits local-level bargaining at individual airports, as well as negotiations about specified security topics, including security policies, pay, pensions, any form of compensation, proficiency testing, job qualifications and discipline standards.

“The safety of the traveling public is our top priority and we will not negotiate on security,” Pistole said at the time of the framework’s release. “But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security. If security officers vote to move forward with collective bargaining, this framework will ensure that TSA retains the capability and flexibility necessary to respond to evolving threats.”

Ridge’s concerns about TSA unionization are valid. The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk notes that even though the union can’t negotiate over hours and assignments now, that can change, and the union will almost certainly press it to happen in the future.

“The Obama Administration’s decision will not improve national security,” Sherk wrote last month. “The TSA has avoided collective bargaining for good reason: It would reduce its effectiveness.”

One such example happened in Canada on Thanksgiving in 2006. A dispute over labor issues led airline screeners to deliberately delay passengers to board. Management, seeking to quell the disruption, allowed more than 250,000 people to fly without being screened.