“Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion in Janus v AFSCME. In this landmark 2018 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that state laws compelling nonunion public employees to pay for union representation is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
While government unions are prohibited from forcing public employees to pay dues, taxpayers are still forced to foot the bill for union business. Under the practice known as union release time, public employees are allowed to conduct union business during work hours at taxpayer expense. Labor unions view release time as a way to offset financial losses from the Janus decision.
Its prevalence notwithstanding, release time is a misuse of public funds. Tax dollars are intended to promote a public purpose, not private interests. In the case of release time, only government unions benefit from this public expenditure. Further, labor unions are formed to exclusively protect the interests of their members, not of the public.
In addition, much of the activity performed on release time conflicts with taxpayer interests. For example, when public employees on release time engage in lobbying elected officials to support certain legislation, taxpayers are funding political activity they may strongly oppose.
Release time receives little attention, but taxpayers across the nation routinely subsidize unionized government employees’ work on behalf of their union instead of their public duties. In many states and cities across the country, government employers fail to track what union activity public employees perform while on release time.
Much of the activity performed on release time appears suspect when it is revealed. For example, several Missouri government unions used release time to lobby public officials, often in favor of legislation that union leaders favor. In Texas, public employees spent release time attending retirement barbecues and fishing tournaments. A police department in New Jersey used release time for vacations and to attend golf tournament fundraisers.
In an effort to expose the costs and activity performed on release time, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has submitted public records requests to a number of states and cities across the country. The most recent responsive records come from the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In Albuquerque, there were no responsive documents of “Activity report for those using union time.” Despite the lack of tracking release time or poor record-keeping, the collective bargaining agreements (CBA) between the City of Albuquerque employers and public-employee unions shed light on what activity may be conducted.
In the city’s CBA with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), the union’s president, secretary, and treasurer are permitted to use release time to attend union meetings, conventions, and conferences. Further, the Union President determines and approves the use of release time.
Another CBA, between the City of Albuquerque and the Officers’ Association Local 1888, grants release time for “preparation for and attendance of pre-determination hearings, grievances, meetings scheduled between the Union and the City, Labor Board filings, and Personnel Board filings.” (pg. 3)
In addition to requesting the activity conducted on release time, the Competitive Enterprise Institute requested records on the cost and amount of hours Albuquerque public employees spend on union business.
Below is a summary of the costs and hours of release time by labor from FY 2016 to FY 2018:
AFSCME Local 1888, ABQ Officers Association
FY 2016: Cost $14,218, Hours 900
Fy 2017: Cost $14,427, Hours 899
FY 2018: Cost $14,431, Hours 895
AFSCME Local 3022
FY 2016: Cost $7,968, Hours 383
FY 2017: Cost $5,104, Hours 238
FY 2018: Cost $2,859, Hours 134
IAFF Local 244, Fire Fighters Union
FY 2016: Cost $64,064, Hours 2,908
FY 2017: Cost $91,479, Hours 3,725
FY 2018: Cost $96,689, Hours 3,891
Albuquerque Police Officers Association and Prisoner Transport Officers
FY 2016: Cost $106,359, Hours 3,930
FY 2017: Cost $101,360, Hours 3,620
FY 2018: Cost $96,516, Hours 3,447
In total, release time cost the City of Albuquerque in the following fiscal years:
$192,610 in FY 2016
$212,370 in FY 2017
$210,494 in FY 2018
Release time hours amounted to:
8,119 in FY 2016
8,482 in FY 2017
8,366 in FY 2018
Ultimately, union release time is an unnecessary subsidy to government unions that serves the interests of unions and their members, not the public. The taxpayer does not receive a direct benefit or any discernable consideration in return for the cost of release time. States and cities should carefully scrutinize whether using tax dollars to subsidize union activities is a proper use of public resources.