By Mallory Factor, Wall Street Journal
Imagine thousands of government employees reporting to work each morning at their government offices and then doing no government work. They use government workspace, government telephones and government computers, all while working on projects unknown and unidentified to their government employers. They receive hefty taxpayer-funded salaries, promotions, bonuses and benefits, plus generous government pensions when they retire—all without doing any work on behalf of the taxpayer. Instead, they work as paid political operatives for powerful government unions.
Welcome to the common practice of "official time." Sometimes called "release time," it's a mechanism by which the government pays union officials to work on union matters during their government workdays. This mechanism—enshrined in law and contracts—is an enormous subsidy to public-employee unions, who defend it fiercely.
The Office of Personnel Management reports that federal employees spent over three million hours on official time in 2010, costing the taxpayers about $137 million in salary and benefits costs.
At the federal level, about 77% of official time (as reported to the OPM) is spent on "general labor-management," a broad catchall for union activity other than contract negotiations or dispute resolution, which are the activities most directly related to employee representation. But when more than three-quarters of all official time is used for unspecified activities, red flags should be raised.
Some union officials split their time between union work and government work. Others, amazingly enough, work exclusively on union business while getting paid for their government "jobs," and may not even show up at their government jobs for months at a time. The Department of Homeland Security alone had 62 employees on full-time official time as of July 2011, according to the department's disclosure. It's not clear how many other federal employees are on official time all the time, since the OPM doesn't require federal departments and agencies to report that figure. The less that is reported, the harder it is to discover abuse.
The only thorough report on official time at the federal level was released in 1998, when the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee required the OPM to do so. At that time, 946 federal employees were on full-time official time, with another 912 spending at least 75% of their days on official time. Today the overall number is a mystery, because no law requires the federal government to disclose it.
States and municipalities don't generally track official time for their employees, much less disclose it, so data on the subject are hard to come by. But based on the total number of unionized workers at all levels of government and the reported levels of official time in the federal government from 2010, we can estimate that American taxpayers are paying for some 23 million total hours of official time every year, at a cost of more than $1 billion. And that doesn't include free government office space, equipment and services used by union officials.
All this persists even though 47 states have "gift clauses" in their constitutions that prohibit government subsidies to private entities. In June, Arizona's Goldwater Institute successfully challenged official time for Phoenix police union officials. Arizona's Superior Court enjoined the practice, concluding that official time violated Arizona's gift clause because the union, not the city, "determines how the money is spent, by whom, and when."
Such challenges to official time are in their infancy—another is pending in Albuquerque, N.M.—but with time they should become more widespread. (In a sign of enduring union power, though, Phoenix signed a new contract with the police union in July that included official time; the Goldwater Institute has filed for a second injunction.)
Why should official time exist at all? Government-employee unions argue that because they represent many workers who don't become members, they should be subsidized by our government. But if workers don't value union representation enough to join the union, why should taxpayers pay for it?
Official time is a ruse for getting taxpayers to support union activities in the government workplace, including the lobbying of legislators for ever-more benefits. This effectively subsidizes unions so they can spend more dues income on political organizing. And it's all done without taxpayers' knowledge. It's a shadowy practice that must be stopped.
Mr. Factor, a professor of international politics and American government at The Citadel, is author of "Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind," recently published by Center Street.