‘Gift Clause’ Can Eliminate Union Pork

What happens when state laws grant government unions the power of collective bargaining? Taxpayer funds become misused and end up aiding government union bosses at the public’s expense.

The Seattle Times Editorial, “Stop the police union freebie” recently exposed that truth. The paper found since 2008 (and probably even further back), taxpayers have foot the bill of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild union president, Sergeant Rich O’Neill salary and benefits, totaling $125,000.

More importantly, the papers’ staff recognizes this is an inappropriate subsidy to labor unions and it is union members’ responsibility to pay the salaries of their top brass not Seattle taxpayers:

“Even more incredibly, a decision over whether the raid on the public treasury should continue is described as one of the last items to be resolved in a new contract between the police and city.

This is not a close call. End the payment, and be polite enough to suppress a smirk about getting away with this scam for years.”

Sadly, the practice of union release time (also called official time), which allows government employees to do union work while on the job, is widespread (see selected Maryland Public School District union release time records here) throughout the United States. For example, Seattle Public Schools offers some its union’s release time. In the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Seattle School District No. 1 and International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 609:

The Union will be provided a pool of one hundred (100) substitute days per year of the Agreement consisting of fifty (50) days paid for by the District and up to fifty (50) additional days paid for equally by the Union and the District. The pool of days will be shared by the Operating Engineers Local No. 609-A (Custodial Engineers and Gardeners), No. 609-B (Food Service Workers), No. 609-C (School Security Specialists), Security Response Specialists and Alarm Monitors for the purposes of meeting with the District’s representative(s) to resolve grievances, to represent members and their interests with the employer or negotiate collective bargaining agreements.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to cure the sickness of union release time available in 47 of 50 states known as the “Gift Clause,” which is a constitutional prohibition on subsidies (see if your state has a Gift Clause here).

For example, Article 8, section 7 of Washington State’s constitution reads:

“No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm, or become directly or indirectly the owner of any stock in or bonds of any association, company or corporation.”

In CLEAN v. State of Washington (1996) the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the legality of expending public funds for a stadium for the Seattle Mariners by creating a two part test:

  1. Do the funds carry out a fundamental purpose of government?
  2. If no, does the appropriating government entity receive adequate consideration for the aiding the private interest?

In the case of union release time, neither Gift Clause criteria is met. All government employee unions are private institutions that exclusively serve the interest of its members. Moreover, the City of Seattle receives absolutely zero in consideration from paying Sergeant Rich O’Neill salary and benefits, totaling $125,000, or any other union release time.

So even if the City Council agrees to continue paying the police union boss salaries; any Washington taxpayer can – and should – challenge the waste under the Gift Clause.