Private airport security firms get the boot

Privatization, the holy Grail of the ultra-right, has taken some heavy hits since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and not just because the heroes were public employees – firefighters, emergency medical workers and the police.

The issue has come to a head on several fronts including airport security, the role of the nation’s public health system in fighting bioterrorism, and the response by private charities to the tragedy.

The majority-Republican House bowed to the Senate in approving legislation to create a federal airport security agency employing 28,000 workers.

The compromise drafted by a House-Senate conference would place the newly created agency under the Transportation Department. It was sent to the White House for President George Bush’s signature Nov. 10.

This ended weeks in which House GOP leaders Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, both of Texas, and the Bush administration rammed through their version, which left it up to Bush to decide whether to permit private security firms to provide airport security at the nation’s 420 airports. House conferees were forced to yield to the Senate version on nearly every point.

Even so, the compromise contains a loophole permitting “pilot projects” in which private firms will provide security services at five airports. It also gives airports the opportunity to opt out of the federal system after three years.

Captain Duane Woerth, president of the Airline Pilots Association, hailed the measure, which also calls for more federal air marshalls and strengthened and locked cockpit doors. More controversial is the measure’s approval of arming pilots.

“ALPA’s members applaud the proposal for enhanced aviation security,” Woerth said. “Federalizing the process for screening passengers will now provide the highest level of security, making these practices uniform and consistent throughout the nation’s air transportation system.”

Patricia Friend, president of the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, also hailed the measure. “We’re glad the lawmakers listened to flight attendants’ concerns in drafting this bill,” she said. Polls showed strong public backing for federalization.

Private firms such as Atlanta-based Argenbright Security reaped contracts with the airlines totaling $330 million. Workers employed as screeners by these mostly non-union private companies are paid wages so low that many are forced to moonlight at other jobs just to survive. The annual turnover rate for these low-wage workers is 126 percent.

At Los Angeles International Airport and at San Francisco International Airport, the workers won union rights and negotiated a livable wage with health-care benefits. The federal airport security workers will be entitled to union representation and will be paid a starting annual salary of $25,000 with benefits. They will not have the right to strike.

Part of the $2.6 billion estimated cost of the new system will be paid in a surcharge on passenger tickets as much as $5 per ticket.

The Bush-Armey-DeLay version was doomed as outrage continued to mount over the fact that 19 terrorists had slipped through these security firms’ checkpoints to hijack four airliners Sept. 11. This was followed by a series of glaring security lapses at airports.

Privatization is also getting sharper scrutiny because of the anthrax scare.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a surgeon and heir to an HMO and hospital fortune, admitted last week that state and local public health departments “are the first line of defense” against bioterrorism. Yet 80 percent of state and local health departments are so starved by budget cuts they lack the equipment to send multiple faxes to their network.

The prospect of faxing medical alerts one-by-one to the dozens of agencies needed in a bioterrorism emergency is such an absurdity that Frist joined with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in offering a bill that would provide $3.2 billion, twice what Bush had requested, to fight bioterrorism.

Part of that money would go to shore up the public health system but the hog’s share would flow into the coffers of pharmaceutical corporations – $509 million to stockpile enough smallpox vaccine to inoculate 300 million people and another $643 million to expand the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile. An additional $670 million would provide grants for “bioterrorism preparedness.”

The issue of a private versus public response to the crisis also came to a head in the acrimonious controversy over allocation of nearly $1 billion in charitable contributions to the victims of 911. Even the venerable Red Cross was caught in this controversy as they attempted to divert donations to other purposes.

The private charities have displayed little inclination to insure an equitable distribution of the benefits.

Pressure is mounting on the public sector to step in and assure benefits for the 100,000 New York City workers left jobless by the terrorist attack. A parting thought: since 9/11, not a single right-wing policymaker has proposed the privatization of the New York Fire Department.