How to Make Official Time Even Worse

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“Official time” is the practice of allowing members of public sector unions to conduct union business while getting paid for the regular government job they aren’t doing at the time. In other words, taxpayers pay unions to negotiate for higher wages and benefits, which usually means even higher taxes. That’s bad enough, but Cincinnati’s American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 8 came up with an innovative twist on the formula: force both its members and taxpayers to pay for official time.

AFSCME Council 8 had included in its contract with Cincinnati that the city would divert the equivalent of four hours of annual vacation time from all city workers and give it to the union. Those funds would compensate the city for the official time used by union members. This didn’t save taxpayers anything, since they were still ultimately paying for the official time. Rather, what it did was take even more money away from the workers, who were already paying regular union dues. Most Cincinnati city workers had no idea this was happening.

The practice has been discontinued following a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, which argued that the arrangement violated the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus ruling, which said that government workers’ pay could only be diverted to unions with the workers’ affirmative consent.

Four hours may not sound like much, but it accumulates quickly. “AFSCME 8 collected 7,296 hours annually to be used by three Cincinnati city employees to do the union’s political bidding, on a full-time basis, at the taxpayers’ expense,” the Freedom Foundation said in a news release. AFSCME 8 does not appear to have made a public statement on the matter.

Official time has long been a dubious practice. In theory, it benefits both management and the union by making collective bargaining more efficient, as workers are freed up to focus exclusively on union matters. In practice, it means taxpayers pay somebody to pressure their government to spend more on worker salaries and benefits, which are ultimately paid by the taxpayer. The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimated in 2017 that there were 700 federal government workers who exclusively worked on behalf of unions.

It is also hard to separate traditional union activities like contract negotiations or handling worker grievances from outside activities like politics. Official time can end up being used to pay for union activism unrelated to government work.

In this case, AFSCME Council 8 was using the guise of official time to find a way to squeeze even more money from its own members without telling them. Alerting members to this and giving them the right to opt out of paying it, as Janus requires unions to do, would have dented the union’s revenue while likely prompting members to ask questions about what the union is spending the money on. No wonder the union settled.