The decision - though limited - won praise from government worker unions and many TSA workers, who fought to win the same protections as other federal employees despite claims from Republican lawmakers that union demands could jeopardize national security or slow response times in a crisis.
The agency's administrator, John Pistole, said the decision will allow bargaining on a national level over certain employment issues such as setting work shifts, transfers, vacation time and awards. The deal prohibits negotiating on issues that might affect security, the deployment of security personnel, job qualifications, testing or discipline. It also bars any work slowdowns.
"The safety of the traveling public is our top priority and we will not negotiate on security," Pistole said. "But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security."
Florida Rep. John Mica, Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the decision "an Obama union payoff" and said it would hamstring the government's fight against terrorism.
Union officials called such arguments an insult to the hundreds of thousands of public safety officers who already have collective bargaining rights, including Border Patrol agents, firefighters and Capitol police.
"Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. His union already has more than 12,000 dues-paying members among the screeners' ranks, but has not been allowed to bargain on their behalf.
Gage called the decision "a big first step" for TSA workers. He said it would help improve employee satisfaction and morale at the agency, which was ranked near the bottom among all federal agencies in a recent survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.
Pistole had spent months studying the union issue. The decision comes just days after Pistole said the agency would not hire private contractors to screen airline passengers, despite calls to do so from some Republican lawmakers and frustrated passengers.
When the agency was created in 2001, it was excluded from regulations that give other federal workers the right to union protections. The law gave the TSA administrator the authority to decide whether collective bargaining should be allowed, and under the administration of President George W. Bush it was always prohibited.
President Barack Obama had pledged to get the screeners collective bargaining rights during his campaign. But the effort was delayed after Obama's first two choices to run the agency dropped out during their confirmation process.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., urged the Senate to overturn the decision, saying even limited collective bargaining rights could impede security.
"If who shows up for work, when they show up and what assignments they get is not a security issue, then nothing is a security issue," DeMint said.
Indeed, the Senate is expected to vote in the next few weeks on a measure offered by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., that would bar screeners from gaining union rights.
But Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said collective bargaining would enhance security by improving the job performance of screening officers.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority has already set union elections at the TSA to begin in early March. TSA employees will choose between Gage's union and the National Treasury Employees Union for representation. They could also choose not to have union representation.