It’s a practice most people in Michigan have probably never heard of, but they’re paying for it all the same at the expense of their public schools. It’s a policy known as “release time,” and the state legislature is taking action to stop it.
For decades, state and local taxpayers have been footing the bill for release time, which allows public school employees to conduct union business during their work day.
“I think it’s OK if they want to do other business, union business, private business, but I don’t think it’s ok that our public employers are paying for them to do private business,” said Michigan State Senator Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), who sponsored the bill to end the practice. Knollenberg’s bill recently passed the State Senate and is under consideration by the State House this week.
Under release time, school districts and other public agencies allow employees to be released from the government jobs for which they were hired to work exclusively for a private union, all while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement.
Release time exists throughout the United States and is prevalent in Michigan. Sixty-seven of the state’s school districts release government workers from their public duties to perform union work, at an estimated cost of $2.7 million per year. That’s money that could be spent educating students, Knollenberg explains.
“When you think about trying to target money into our classrooms, this is dollars not going to the classrooms,” he said. “As I talk to teachers and my constituents, they understand that this practice should not be occurring.”
Release time is negotiated through collective bargaining agreements, where school districts and local governments allow full-time employees to be released from their government duties to engage in activities that directly support the mission of their unions. In many cases, these activities include allowing government-funded workers to lobby government, negotiate higher wages and benefits, solicit new union members, attend union conferences and meetings, and file costly grievances.
In addition to paying the government to lobby itself, many of these private activities, such as negotiating new contracts and filing employment grievances, are often directly contrary to the interests of the district employer.
And when public employees use release time to negotiate over wages and benefits, taxpayers are literally funding both sides of the negotiation with no seat at the table themselves.
“I think most taxpayers aren’t even aware that this practice is even occurring, and I think it’s like a best-kept secret,” Knollenberg said. “If you’re a union person receiving these benefits, why would you tell anybody?”
Michigan’s Constitution – as well as that of 47 other states – already prohibits giving public money to private organizations and interests. And when school district employees are released from the classroom to pursue the private interests of their unions, it constitutes an impermissible gift to a private association and violates the constitution.
To the extent unions are also engaging in collective bargaining, and worse yet, political activities while on release time, the practice also violates the First Amendment rights of non-union members, who are forced to speech with which they may disagree.
What’s more, considering that government unions actively engage in political activities to elect and defeat school board members – in other words, because unions elect their own bosses – the local political process encourages rather than discourages eliminating release time.
That is why Michigan’s actions are both necessary and noteworthy. Despite constitutional prohibitions, it is unlikely that local school districts that benefit from union political support will take action to end this taxpayer abuse.
The Michigan Senate had the political will to do what local politicians will not do. The House should follow suit. And other states should emulate Michigan’s example.
Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.