Union release time is supposed to bring “labor peace” to the states, cities, and school districts that pay union officials to do union work.
It did not turn out that way in April 2018, when an estimated 75,000 school teachers and support personnel throughout Arizona walked off the job for more than a week demanding higher pay as part of the union-backed “Red for Ed” movement. The protests amounted to a statewide teachers’ strike that forced the closure of more than 1,000 schools and affected about 850,000 students.
Ultimately, the walkouts ended after state officials agreed to the 20% pay hike the teachers and their unions demanded.
The teachers returned to work. Schools reopened. And there were no consequences for either the teachers or the unions that helped organize and encourage the walkouts.
It’s not supposed to happen that way.
Standard language in various state laws, local policies, and union contracts nationwide prohibits public employees from engaging in strikes, walkouts, work stoppages, or slowdowns. Those same restrictions preclude unions from supporting or encouraging any of those activities.
Depending on the jurisdiction and contract language, government employees who go on strike can be fired, and unions that support strikes can lose their ability to act as the representatives of a particular group of workers.
It’s all part of the whole “labor peace” bargain used to justify contracts with public employee unions in general and union release time in particular.
Release time is the practice whereby government employees who are also union officials are released from their regular duties to perform union work while still drawing full pay and benefits from the taxpayers.
The Goldwater Institute was able to document more than 408,000 hours of annual government-paid release time when it surveyed the state departments of corrections, the capital cities, and the largest school districts in each state. Of the 150 jurisdictions surveyed, 68 were unable to produce data on the hours and cost of release time allotted to union officials. Because of that widespread lack of transparency, plus the sheer number of state and local jurisdictions in the United States, there is no way to know how much time and taxpayer money is being given to public employee unions through release time.
Many of the jurisdictions that do allow release time permit top union officials full-time release, meaning their only job is to do union work while they continue to receive full pay, benefits, promotions, and pension credits from their government employers.
For years, public interest groups like the Goldwater Institute have brought lawsuits challenging paid release time as an illegal gift of public money to private unions. So far, none has succeeded on that issue.
The standard argument advanced by the unions—and the governments that pay for it—is that release time is essential to maintaining labor peace. It provides management with a single point of contact on labor issues, especially if top union officials are on full-time release, they assert. Release time also allows conflicts, grievances, and other problems to be worked out internally, thereby avoiding costly lawsuits and labor unrest, including strikes.
But appeasement to union demands like release time does not bring labor peace, according to taxpayer advocates who consider it an illegal union subsidy. In fact, states that have the most union-friendly laws tend to have the most labor trouble, said Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation in Washington State.
“Labor peace is the catchall justification for any specific policy or privilege that unions want or want to maintain,” said Nelsen, who has studied the correlation between labor-friendly laws and strikes by government employees in each state.
“The labor peace justification for release time, I think, is just a fig leaf. Unions have to come up with some argument to justify release time other than their own self-interest. I think this is really all they can come up with.”
Nelsen compared the frequency of public employee strikes in states with right-to-work laws to that in states without such laws. Unions oppose right-to-work laws, which are in place in 27 states and prohibit the forced collection of union dues from nonunion workers.
In the states without right-to-work laws, public employees went on strike at a rate 27 times that of union-represented workers in right-to-work states, Nelsen found using government data on strikes and work stoppages between 1993 and 2016.
What that shows is that state and local jurisdictions do not buy labor peace by forcing nonmembers to pay union dues, Nelsen said. The same is true with release time.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s possible for state and municipal governments to have a functioning, working labor-relations system without release time included as a component,” Nelsen said. “Even in those states that have strong public-sector labor unions and that have robust collective bargaining statutes for public employees, there are many examples of local and municipal employees that don’t have release time built into their collective bargaining agreements and yet are able to function and have productive relationships with their unions. It’s just not an essential component to any government’s labor-relations system or to ensuring labor peace.”
Laws requiring union dues to be paid by nonunion members were declared unconstitutional in a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
POKING THE BEAR
Nelsen’s assessment that government-paid union release time is not essential to maintaining good labor-management relations is borne out in the survey done by the Goldwater Institute. Of the 150 jurisdictions, 44 reported they did not allow any release time at the expense of taxpayers. These include the capital cities in 10 states, the largest school districts in 13 states, and the corrections departments in 21 states.
No level of government—state, city, or school district—reported any paid release time in a half-dozen states.
With few exceptions, government officials did not to want to talk about their release time practices and whether they help maintain labor peace, even in jurisdictions reporting zero hours. The Goldwater Institute sought interviews with 20 entities that reported they had no government-paid release time, including all 10 of the cities. While a few sent broadly worded written statements, none would arrange an interview to discuss how they handle labor relations absent release time.
There are probably a couple of reasons for that, said Dennis Muchmore, who was chief of staff to former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who in 2012 signed a right-to-work law in that state.
Some of the jurisdictions that claim they do not allow paid release time probably do permit union stewards to do some union work on an as-needed basis, but simply do not report it or write it into formal agreements or policies, said Muchmore, himself the former president of a local teachers union. Beyond that, even in places that really do not have paid release time, there is no benefit in calling attention to that fact.
“I’m sure people just don’t want to poke the bear,” said Muchmore, who now works as the co-leader of government affairs at the Detroit-based Honigman Business Law Firm. “Why give some teacher union president the idea that they should be off most of the week doing union business when they‘re supposed to be teaching?”
Government-paid release time is among “8 essentials to a strong union contract” for public employee unions, according to a guide issued by the the National Education Association.
The Goldwater Institute’s survey shows there is not much correlation between release time and right-to-work laws, the metric used in Nelsen’s research.
In Arizona, a right-to-work state, the capital city of Phoenix allows more than 67,000 hours of release time annually, the most of any jurisdiction surveyed.
By contrast, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported it has no collective bargaining agreements or release time. The Mesa Unified School District, the largest in the state, allows the president of the teachers union to be released half-time, but the union is responsible for paying for those non-teaching union duties.
Conversely, in Oregon, which is not a right-to-work state, no jurisdiction that was surveyed has contract provisions granting large amounts of government-paid release time.
Muchmore said it is not surprising that many jurisdictions in union-friendly states do not have extensive release time. For one thing, it is less of a priority where unions are strong. Beyond that, until the 2018 court decision, laws in most union-friendly states compelled even nonmembers to pay union dues, so it was easier for unions to pay their own people.
Release time policies also will vary based on the unions that represent public employees, he said. The Detroit Public Schools district is a good example. The district allows several full-time union release positions, but the unions are required to reimburse the district for all costs, including benefits, according to an email from district officials.
Despite the passage of the right-to-work law in 2012, Michigan remains a strong union state and Detroit is a strong union city. Teachers there are represented by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.
Historically, at least among teachers unions, top officials in locals affiliated with the AFL-CIO are paid by their unions, Muchmore said. Government-paid release time is viewed as “impure” and gives management a point of leverage that can be used to win concessions on other issues.
“They always felt that it’s a wimpy way to do union stuff,” Muchmore said of AFL-CIO unions. “Most of the superintendents I’ve been around in my life like release time because they know that they’ve got a leverage point on negotiations. If they hint they are going to take away release time, most of these local part-time union presidents go crazy because they lose the only real perk they get.”
Unions affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA) tend to seek more lavish release time, Muchmore said. They view the top officers in their union locals more as coming from the professions they represent—in this case teachers—rather than as professional union representatives. Therefore, the thinking goes, as professional teachers they should be paid by the school districts that employ them.
“We can get too philosophic about this stuff,” Muchmore said. “Release time is just a freebie.”
NEA officials did not respond to a request for an interview. Even before the 2018 court decision, the NEA sent out a guide listing “8 essentials to a strong union contract” that public employee unions should seek in negotiations. Among those essentials is government-paid release time.
Teachers gather for the Red for Ed protest in Tucson, Ariz., on April 30, 2018.
So if release time and collective bargaining agreements do not buy labor peace or at least prevent strikes by teachers and other public employees, then what will?
That comes down to enforcement, said Nelsen.
If penalties for striking are not enforced, they will not be taken seriously, he said.
It usually falls to elected officials on school boards or city councils to decide whether to take action, such as disciplining employees or seeking a court order to end the strike.
That may not be politically palatable, especially when it comes to teachers, whom voters are more likely to sympathize with, Nelsen said. Beyond that, management’s top priority is to end the strike so things can return to normal. Agreeing not to punish the strikers is a standard condition for resolving walkouts.
That’s largely what happened in Arizona during the Red for Ed shutdowns. Even before the strikes began, many governing boards in large districts passed resolutions supporting the movement, preemptively closed schools, and allowed their employees to log the walkouts as vacation or sick days to avoid the threat of disciplinary consequences. When the strikes ended, there were no reports that any district attempted a mass firing of teachers or decertification of unions that supported Red for Ed. The Tucson Unified School District actually inserted language in its contract specifying there would be no reprisals against any of the strikers or the unions.
A better approach that is used in some jurisdictions is to allow anyone impacted by the walkout—parents for instance—to bring legal action against strikers, Nelsen said. Penalties can be made mandatory: automatic loss of pay for individual public employees who go on strike, and automatic decertification of any union that supports a strike, walkout, or work stoppage.
“It’s really a question of what enforcement mechanisms, if any, are built into state law or collective bargaining agreements,” Nelsen said. “It could be as simple as does the public employee lose pay when they walk out for the day or for the week and go on strike? If the answer is yes, then strikes are vanishingly rare in the public sector. But if the answer is no, then strikes are much more common.”
Note: The Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the practice of release time in the city of Phoenix. That case is pending.