By Kevin Mooney | Watchdog.org
Try asking your boss if you can help organize a political protest and shout down opposing viewpoints during company time and at company expense. If you’re like most Americans, chances are good that’d be the second-to-the-last conversation you’d have with a company official — right before the one that leads to cleaning out your desk.
But unionized government workers are not like most Americans.
That’s why Brigitte Nieland, vice president of the Education and Workforce Development Council for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, is keen on congressional legislation introduced in early January that would put an end to “official time” – a controversial practice that allows federal employees to conduct union business during working hours unrelated to their work responsibilities.
Critics charge that official time amounts to a substantial government subsidy for union activity, paid for by taxpayers—at a time when the federal government continues to run up massive deficits. Official time was first codified into law under President Jimmy Carter in 1978. House Republicans are gathering support for legislation that would prohibit federal employees from conducting union business when they are working on taxpayer time.
Rep. Phil Gingrey’s (R-Ga.) bill, the Federal Employee Accountability Act (HR 107), is auspiciously timed, Nieland said, because it adds further impetus to state-level “payroll protection” legislation initiatives that prevent union dues from being automatically deducted for political purposes.
“I view what Rep. Gingrey is trying to do at the federal level as very complimentary toward what we are trying to do in Louisiana, and what other states are trying to do,” Nieland said. “We are attacking the same problem from a different angle.”
Under current law, union operatives are perfectly positioned to pressure and cajole lawmakers into accepting policy changes that are at odds with the preferences of most Americans. Put another way, official time enables unionized government workers to lobby for lavish taxpayer-funded benefit packages, and reshape public policy in a manner that is detrimental to taxpayer interests, while they are being paid by those same taxpayers.
“This is the kind of irony that now exists in public education,” Nieland, the LABI vice-president said. She recalls how union leaders in her state pulled teachers out of classroom last spring in Louisiana to demonstrate against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package.
“In many instances, the actions taken by the teachers unions can be viewed as anti-taxpayer,” she observed. “But the taxpayer dollars are providing them with a steady stream of money to block reforms beneficial to the state’s education system, and the economy as a whole.”
OPM delays report highlighting taxpayer cost of official time
At the federal level, a new report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which has not yet been officially released, includes some disconcerting figures recently disclosed in The Federal Times:
“The amount of so-called ‘official time’ — time in which federal employees are paid while conducting official union business — grew by almost 11 percent in 2011, substantially more than the 2 percent increase in the previous year, said Angela Bailey, OPM associate director of employee services…The cost of official time in 2011 increased more than 13 percent from 2010, Bailey said. That’s more than twice the 6 percent in cost increase in the previous year.”
Rep. Gingrey, and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a lead co-sponsor for HR 107, have sent a letter to OPM Director John Berry asking him to release the report.
“These statistics serve only to increase the need to access the fiscal 2011 report,” they wrote. “Continued and timely preparation of these reports is necessary to provide transparency of the use of official time and to provide oversight of taxpayer dollars.”
But William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, sees the matter much differently. Rep. Gingrey, and other House members backing his bill, have mischaracterized and distorted the true meaning of official time, he argues.
Unlike other labor organizations, federal unions are not permitted to bargain for wages and benefits, Dougan, explained. They exist primarily to protect federal employees from violations of workplace protections under the collective bargaining agreement and labor law.
“However, federal employees are also not required to pay dues for union representation, meaning unions are legally mandated to represent non-members for free,” he said. “This is where official time comes in. We and other labor organizations use official time to represent employees in cases involving discrimination, merit principles, workplace safety, and implementation of other workplace policies.”
Official time is needed for representational duties, he added, but because it allows employee representatives to “handle sensitive workplace issues faster than the normal bureaucratic process would allow, resolving issues more efficiently.”
Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center in Michigan, is not convinced the union members are at a disadvantage; quite the opposite.
“Think of official time as an open bar at a wedding where there is no cost to the guest, the guest being the union,” he said. “But there is great cumulative cost to the bride’s father, the bride’s father being the taxpayer.”
Using taxpayer money to block taxpayer friendly reforms
Unionized government workers also do the bidding of union bosses at the state and local level, but the problem is more difficult to quantify since state and local governments do not typically track official time.
Mallory Factor, a professor of international politics and American government at The Citadel, estimates that U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for 23 million total hours of official time at all levels government and that this is costing them over $1 billion annually. Factor is also the author of “Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind.”
Matt Patterson, a labor policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in Washington D.C., told Watchdog.org that the union racket attached to “official time” deserves greater attention in the news media.
“Most people expect that when they show up for work, they’re on their employer’s time. But many public employees, who are also union members, are allowed to do work for their union — including sometimes political activity — while on the taxpayer’s dime,” he said. “It’s an outrageous and unfair practice that amounts to a giant public subsidy for organized labor.”
Gingrey’s bill would prohibit the federal government from paying employees while they are conducting union business. Patterson, the CEI analyst, calculates that this change could save taxpayers about $1.3 billion over 10 years.
In an email message to Watchdog.org, Rep. Ross indicated that he would be introducing additional legislation aimed at inducing the OPM into greater transparency.
“At a time when we are more than $16 trillion in debt, we need to ensure that we are cutting all wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, no matter for which political side the union employees are advocating,” he wrote. “My bill that I’m introducing this week would require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to submit an annual report to Congress on the use of official time by federal employees.”
Back in Cajun Country, where the teachers unions have pulled out all the stops to block Gov. Jindal’s voucher program and his changes to teacher tenure, the proposed payroll protection bill would give public employees the option to decline paying dues that ultimately go toward political activism they do not support.
The protest union officials organized at the state capitol to block passage of Gov. Jindal’s reforms? It took teachers out of the classroom just a few days before standardized testing was set to begin.
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