Union work on taxpayers' dime

COMMENTARY Jobs and Labor

Union work on taxpayers' dime

Jun 16th, 2015 2 min read

Research Fellow, Labor Economics

As research fellow in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, James Sherk researched ways to promote competition and mobility.

In 1976, Jerry Jordan began his career teaching Spanish in Philadelphia public schools. A decade later, Jordan left the classroom to work full time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He is now the union's president, negotiating with public officials for union members' wages and benefits - but there's one big problem.

Nearly 30 years after Jordan graded his last test, Philadelphia taxpayers are still covering part of his compensation.

How is this possible?

A union practice known as "release time" or "official time" enables Jordan to tap the public payroll to staff his private political organization - and he's far from the only one. Union contracts typically include provisos allowing government employees to work for their union while on the clock and on the public dime.

Taxpayers, often oblivious to these backroom deals, foot the bill for government union operations across the country.

Records from the Office of Personnel Management show taxpayers forked over $155 million in release-time payments to federal workers in 2011. That's nearly 3.4 million hours of taxpayer-financed union work - the equivalent of roughly 1,700 full-time positions.

This includes hundreds of employees in agencies famously failing to serve the public. Many injured soldiers wait months for treatment at Veterans Affairs facilities. At the same time, VA pays 500 full-time equivalent employees to tend to union business instead of wounded veterans.

This April, fewer than half of the taxpayers asking the IRS for tax advice got assistance because the agency had dramatically cut its customer-service budget. Yet the IRS pays 200 full-time equivalent employees to do nothing but union work.

Incredibly, federal employees on release time are even permitted to lobby Congress. That's right: Taxpayers pick up the tab for the unions' explicitly political activities.

The same thing happens in state and local government.

Philadelphia is a great case study: The labor contract between the School District of Philadelphia and the PFT allows up to 63 school employees to leave the classroom and work full time for the union. While essentially cutting class, these employees also receive free health benefits, rack up generous pensions, and accrue teaching seniority that benefits them at the expense of teachers who remain in the classroom.

The PFT is currently reimbursing the district for most of its salary and benefit costs, but these voluntary repayments could end at any time. There's no contractual requirement that the union pay back the district and property taxpayers for the costs of doing union work. There's also no record that the state is being reimbursed for its portion of these employees' pensions - costing Pennsylvania taxpayers about $1 million since 1999.

Common sense dictates that the government should not give public resources away to private organizations. Indeed, most state constitutions - including Pennsylvania's - have "gift clauses" that forbid it. These provisions prohibit legislators from giving away public resources without reciprocal public benefits.

That's why the Fairness Center, a public-interest law firm, took some cues from a successful legal challenge in Arizona by the Goldwater Institute and sued to end this abusive practice in Philadelphia in February. The district has no legal authority to give the PFT its employees' time. Litigation is ongoing, but the issue can also be addressed via legislation.

At the federal level, lawmakers have introduced four major bills to reform release time. These proposals will undoubtedly draw fierce opposition from Big Labor leaders, who seek to maintain the special treatment that gives them a political advantage over the taxpayers paying their salaries.

If these legal and legislative challenges are successful, future collective-bargaining agreements will require public employees to work exclusively for the public. There's no reason to give government unions special deals that would land any other political organization under investigation.

 - James Sherk is a research fellow specializing in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. Nate Bohlander is assistant general counsel for the Fairness Center.

Originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer