Union Special Privilege Under Scrutiny

In response to a Miami Herald report, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner is sponsoring legislation to eliminate or reduce the practice of allowing government employees to work full-time for their union, also known as union release time.

Currently, over 42 Miami-Dade workers engage in union release time full-time, costing the county over $2.65 million, according to the Miami Herald. An additional 135 county employees take union release time on an as-needed basis. Worse, government employees on union release time face no oversight from elected representatives.

Other than the fact that union release time is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, Commissioner Esteban Bovo introduced legislation to pare back the practice as a way to avoid cuts to vital public services. As of now, the Miami-Dade County 2013-14 budget will require steep service cuts and more than 200 employee layoffs.

In the first meeting discussing ending union release time, Commissioner Bovo said, “Shouldn’t employees that are doing the union work be paid by the union to do their work? Why does the taxpayer have to front that bill?”

Well, as explained in a previous post, Florida taxpayers do not have to foot that bill. Already in Arizona, the practice of union release time has been found unconstitutional:

In April 2013, the Superior Court of Arizona Maricopa County court struck down—for the second time—the union release time provisions in the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Phoenix and the Police Law Enforcement Association. The court ruled that the provisions are unlawful under Arizona’s Gift Clause, which forbids the state or any political subdivision therein from making any donation or grant, via subsidy or other means, to any private individual, association, or corporation.


In order to direct public funds to a private party in accordance with the Arizona Gift Clause, two components of a two-part analysis must be met. First, public funds to a private entity must promote a public purpose. Second, the public entity must receive a proportionate, quantifiable, and direct benefit for the aid given.


The court established PLEA uses release time to advance the interests of its members only. Judge Katherine Cooper stated in her decision, “[R]elease time does not advance a public purpose. It diverts resources away from the mission of the Phoenix Police Department, which is the safety of the community.” She found that the benefits of release time accrue exclusively to police employees and that there is no accountability for how union release time is spent.


To provide sufficient consideration under the Gift Clause, the private entity must promise to provide fair-market value in return for a direct and quantifiable public benefit. Since the labor contract between PLEA and the City of Phoenix does not require the union to perform any service in return for the $1.7 million of official time over the two-year life of the contract, the court held the issuance of union release time does not meet either standard for a proper public expenditure under the Gift Clause. The court issued an injunction and enjoined the provisions allowing for union release time.

Fortunately for Bovo, Florida’s constitution contains a Gift Clause in Article VII, Section 10, which states, “Neither the state nor any county, school district, municipality, special district, or agency of any of them, shall… give, lend or use its taxing power or credit to aid any corporation, association, partnership or person.”
So if Bovo’s union release time bill fails, then a legal avenue to eliminate release time exists in Florida’s Gift Clause.