A simmering feud between the Department of Education and the union representing the agency’s employees erupted into a bigger squabble over a wasteful taxpayer subsidy known as “official time.”
Union official time enables thousands of federal employees to perform union business on the taxpayer’s dime. Yes, instead of federal employees working for the public, they conduct union business during work hours while continuing to collect a paycheck funded by tax dollars. So taxpayers pay for these employees’ wages, pensions, and healthcare benefits and, in many cases, union office space, supplies, and travel. That has been the case in the Education Department’s previous collective bargaining agreement.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 3,900 agency employees, is none too happy about losing the subsidy. But that’s what happened after the union failed to sit down at the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract. Agency officials proceeded to implement a new collective bargaining agreement that took effect on March 12 and curtails official time.
The New York Times pointed to official time as a major bone of contention in the labor-management scuffle: “Most notably, the contract cuts down the use of ‘official time,’ which employees could use to do union activities.” The news outlet fails to explain this is also a huge win for taxpayers. In fact, it’s a contract provision that other federal agencies should implement when union negotiations come due.
Union official time cost taxpayers $162.5 million in fiscal year 2014, with federal employees spending 3.4 million hours on union business, according to the latest available numbers from the Office of Personnel Management . A FedSmith.com article estimates the Education Department could achieve $1.5 million in savings from eliminating official time. The new contract comes close to eliminating paid official time but allows a limited amount of time for employees to take unpaid leave to take care of union matters.
Claudette Young, president of the AFGE Council 252 that represents agency employees, complained to Government Executive that the new contract was crafted to make it “intentionally difficult for union officials to represent employees, which is required by law, regardless of whether the employee is a dues-paying member.” The union is unhappy at the prospect of representing so-called free-riders — workers who do not pay dues but are forced to be represented by a union.
This concern, at least, can be easily resolved. Free federal employee unions from their legal responsibility to represent non-dues-paying employees. Instead, create members-only unions, where only full-fledged union members pay dues, work under a collective bargaining agreement, and receive union representation.
Nonmembers, workers who do not desire union representation, are free to represent themselves before their employer. Since wages and benefits are set by federal law, not union contracts, there may be little need for a union to negotiate on an employee’s behalf, anyway.
Either way, federal employees should be working for the public and not their union. Toward that end, the Education Department’s union contract that scales back official time should become a blueprint for other agencies to follow so that federal employees are spending 100 percent of their time working for the taxpayer. Further, if unions contend they need official time to represent non-dues-paying members, they should come together with Republicans in Congress and free these workers to represent themselves.