The Public Pays for Union Political Activity

Taxpayer dollars in state and municipal governments across the country are, normally without public knowledge, used to subsidize government union political undertakings. Clearly, this is a misuse of the public’s limited resources.

The latest example, The Baltimore Sun reports, a Howard County, Maryland audit finds:

According to the Feb. 24 investigation, four employees of the sheriff’s office improperly used union leave, thus granting Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald “county-subsidized campaign labor” not available to his opponents.

Union leave, which allows government employees to perform union business on the taxpayers’ dime, was used to influence the 2014 primary and general elections.

A majority of public-sector collective bargaining agreements contain a provision allowing union leave, or union release time. While union leave is a waste of tax dollars—no matter the use—political activity is usually prohibited under the practice. However, unlike many other state and municipal governments, Howard County is seeking ways to recoup the misused funds.

In recent reports, I’ve found that government unions in other states similarly misuse union leave to participate in political activity.

In Missouri, union leave was used to lobby public officials:

CWA and PNEA members spent most of their release time conducting partisan political activity or attending union meetings and conferences. For example, CWA was allotted 39 days of release time. Of those days, CWA members spent 31 of them participating in “Lobby Day, Jefferson City,” which is an event set up by the CWA and other public-employee unions to lobby legislators. On Lobby Day 2013, the CWA sent 10 members on release time to the state Capitol, where they lobbied legislators to vote against right to work and paycheck protection laws.

PNEA political activity on release time involved attending seven days of the National Education Association (NEA) Capitol Action Day, part of the union’s lobbying strategy. PNEA members on release time also attended the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) Spring Rep Assembly, where union representatives from around the state discuss internal union business.

In Connecticut, the state personnel reported prohibited political activity on union leave:

However, a 2014 general notice from the state Office of Labor Relations acknowledges concerns from agency personnel on 1) the increased requests for union business leave and 2) that union representatives may be conducting political activity on union business leave, which is prohibited.

Besides the obvious problem with government subsidizing political activity that could sway public elections, union leave is a subsidy that does not serve a public purpose and exclusively benefits a private organization—government unions.

It is a costly subsidy, as well. In Connecticut, the union leave cost state government employers $4.1 million. In Austin, Texas, the union subsidy cost the cities of Austin and San Antonio a combined $1 million. Notably, Austin fire union President Bob Nicks, who only performs union leave business and never fights fires, disagrees with the practice. Nicks said, “I’ve been fighting to be put back to work at our fire department.”

Kentucky government unions received 31,458 hours of union leave from 2011-2015. In Maryland, in 2011-2012, nine school districts awarded 973.8 days of union leave, or the equivalent of nearly 5.5 full school years just performing union business.

Not to be left out, the federal government participates in the taxpayer giveaway. In FY 2012, the last year data are available, it cost $157 million.

Luckily, some are trying to do something about the wasteful practice. 

In Arizona, the Goldwater Institute successfully sued over the practice of union leave. In 2011, Goldwater argued that union leave provision in the contract between the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association violated the state constitutional provision known as the “Gift Clause,” which prohibits state and local governments from giving away tax dollars to private entities.

The judge agreed, “The city’s expenditure for the release time [union leave] was grossly disproportionate to what it received in return, given the lack of obligation imposed on PLEA.”

The successful lawsuit puts police officers back to work and saves Phoenix taxpayers nearly $1 million annually.

A Pennsylvanian public interest law firm, The Fairness Center, is looking to replicate the Goldwater Institute’s success with a lawsuit against the Allentown school district that awards union leave.

According to the Fairness Center:

The cost [of union leave] to state and local taxpayers since 2003 exceeds $1 million.

The Fairness Center represents Allentown taxpayers Scott Armstrong and Steven Ramos, and Public School Employees’ Retirement System member James Williams, in a suit challenging the Allentown Education Association’s (AEA’s) practice of using taxpayer dollars to fund the salary and benefits of Allentown Education Association’s President. The AEA President receives taxpayer dollars for her position despite the fact that she works full-time for the AEA.

Tax dollars should exclusively support public services. With so many state and municipal governments having budget shortages, there is no room to fund for any activity that does not advance a public purpose. Union leave is such an expense and an expense that is commonly misused to advance political agendas.