August 30, 2021
By Jon Riches

Over the past 70 years, unionization among government workers has become an accepted and expected part of public service. And unfortunately, it’s created some egregious abuses at taxpayers’ expense.

Since the 1950s, unionization in America’s workforce has undergone a major shift. Back then, nearly one-third of all non-agricultural employees in the private sector were union members. Today, that number is barely about 6 percent. The opposite, however, is true in government. In the 1950s, a little over 10 percent of the government workforce belonged to a union. Today, it is nearly 35 percent. And the number of government employees who belong to a union far outpaces the number of private sector employees who belong to a union in absolute numbers, even though private sector employment is vastly higher than government employment.

But unionization among government workers was not always a foregone conclusion. Indeed, early objectors included the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a friend of organized labor and major proponent of private unionization—who once declared, “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Indeed, even the first president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, believed that “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” 

The reasons for this are many, but at the core, the notion that government employees can halt the public’s business and essential government functions unless their private demands are met is anathema to representative government. And as government unionization has grown, it’s produced some truly outrageous taxpayer abuses.

One such abuse is release time. Under “release time,” government employers divert full-time government employees away from the jobs they were hired to perform and place them instead under the direction and control of private labor organizations—all while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement. While on release time, public employees are being paid by taxpayers to lobby the government, engage in partisan political activities, negotiate higher wages and benefits, solicit new union members, attend union conferences and meetings, and file costly grievances against the public employers. In short, taxpayer dollars are going toward private union activities—activities that don’t have a public benefit.

The Goldwater Institute has been at the forefront of exposing this practice and challenging it. Several investigative reports prepared by the Institute examine release time use and abuse—and the data on the practice is stunning. After looking at the practice in 150 jurisdictions across America, the Institute was able to document more than 400,000 hours of paid release time each year—and that is just at the local level. Release time also exists at the state level and is offered by the federal government at a cost to taxpayers of $135 million per year in 2019. That amount dropped 25% under the Trump administration from the $177 million spent on release time in 2016. With the new administration, expect the cost to taxpayers of this practice to go up—substantially—once again.

Fortunately, there are solutions—and Goldwater is hard at work taking on release time through both policy and litigation. The Institute has filed several legal challenges to release time. Several of these are predicated on state anti-subsidy provisions, contending that release time is an unlawful gift of public funds to a private entity without adequate return. For example, we have challenged release time under state constitution gift clauses in Arizona and New Jersey, with another case pending in Texas. The Institute also filed a case asserting that release time violates the First Amendment rights of non-unionized employees, who are forced to subsidize union activities while employees are on release time, including political activities, when non-union members have no desire to participate in the union or pay for it. 

Because release time allows union officials to spend their days getting favored candidates elected, legislative reform of the practice can be an uphill battle. But Goldwater has developed model legislation for state and local governments to end release time or curtail its worst abuses—and we’re fighting hard to bring it to states across the country. Look for these measures to be considered in several states in the coming legislative sessions.   

Public service is a public trust. Unfortunately, government union bosses have obscured the line between the public’s interest and the private, special interests of the unions they represent. Release time is a prime example of what happens when the taxpayers’ will is subverted by those who are supposed to work for us.    

You can read more about the Goldwater Institute’s efforts to take on release time here.

Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

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