January 26, 2021
By Mark Flatten

Top officials at federal employee unions will be able to go back to working full-time for their unions while on the taxpayers’ payroll, thanks to an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.

Biden wasted no time in restoring the largely unrestricted practice of “official time” to federal unions. On Friday, his third day in office, Biden repealed an earlier order by his predecessor, Donald Trump, that limited the practice which allows union officials employed by the federal government to spend their days working for their unions while still drawing full pay and benefits from the taxpayers.

The action is pure political payback, said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, told the Goldwater Institute.

“He’s utterly beholden to big labor,” Mourad said of Biden. “Reversing official time is the same thing as just giving the unions money, and the more money they have, the more they have to spend helping him and his friends stay in power.”

Federal official time has been lucrative giveaway to public employee unions since it was created by federal law in the 1970s. In 2016, those unions were granted 3.63 million hours of official time to spend doing union business at a cost to taxpayers of $177.2 million.

Trump sought to curb the practice through an executive order he issued in May 2018. But Trump’s order did not end official time. Rather, it imposed restrictions that previously did not exist on what is considered a “reasonable” amount of time each union would be allowed, the only real limit in the law. Trump’s order also banned the use of official time for lobbying or other political activities, and ended full-time release for top union officials by requiring they spend at least three-quarters of their time doing their government jobs. Prior to Trump’s order, many union officials were released full-time for union work, meaning that was their only job while on the federal payroll, and had been for years.

The net effect of Trump’s order was to cut the amount of official time granted at taxpayer expense to about 2.6 million hours at a cost of about $135 million by 2019. No data on the use of official time was published between 2016 and 2019.

Biden also ordered federal agencies to purge, suspend, or revise any actions they have taken to implement restrictions on official time.

That means the changes to official time practices can happen very quickly, Mourad said. If a federal union contract was negotiated under the restrictions of the Trump order, the Biden administration can agree to re-open the contract to allow for additional union time, he said.

“This is one of the easiest, fastest things he could do, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that it was one of the first things he did,” Mourad said. “Biden’s actions with this are a pretty clear signal that big labor is the Democrats’ highest priority.”

Restoring official time, also known as release time at the state and local level, has been a top priority of federal employee unions since Trump issued his order in 2018. The unions quickly sued in federal court to block the restrictions, effectively stalling implementation for a year, but they ultimately lost on jurisdictional grounds.

Labor unions dumped more than $219 million in contributions into federal elections in 2020, including about $68.5 million from public sector unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign donations. About 90 percent went to Democrats.

Biden also rescinded two other Trump orders dealing with federal employee unions, one of which made it easier to discipline certain federal workers and the other limiting collective bargaining procedures in contract negotiations.

Paying top officials at public employee unions is not limited to the federal government. As the Goldwater Institute documented in a five-part series, state and local governments also are generous with taxpayer dollars when it comes to allowing employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.

A survey of the state departments of corrections, capital cities, and largest school districts in each state—150 entities in all—showed they allowed more than 408,000 hours of paid union release time annually. That is likely a low-ball figure, since nearly half of those jurisdictions do not even track the hours and cost of union release time they allow. Beyond that, vague language in many union contracts imposes no quantifiable limits on how much time is deemed “reasonable” to perform union duties at taxpayers’ expense.

The Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the release time practices in the city of Phoenix, which reported allowing more than 67,500 hours of paid union release time per year at a cost of $3.7 million. That case is pending. Goldwater is also currently litigating release time cases in Texas and New Jersey.

Mark Flatten is the National Investigative Journalist at the Goldwater Institute and the author of a recent five-part Goldwater series on release time.

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