Doing Union Work on the Government Clock?

By: - March 26, 2012 12:00 am

The Arizona legislature is considering making it illegal for local governments to pay workers for time they spend doing union work. This so-called “release time” is bargained for alongside salary and vacation and sick pay and included in many local contracts.

One version of the legislation passed the Senate but stalled in a House committee. Now Senate leaders are attempting to resuscitate the measure by sending it directly to the House floor in an unrelated bill that the House has already passed.

Supporters of the legislation say paying union leaders to do union work is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money and should come out of union dues. “What else are union dues for?” says Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based free market think tank that is pushing the legislation.

According to a Goldwater Institute report, the practice is widespread and allows some union officials to do union work full-time while drawing a city salary and benefits. Release time costs Phoenix $3.7 million per year, according to Goldwater’s calculations.

Opponents, including the city of Phoenix, argue that the state should not be dictating the terms localities negotiate with their workers. The city believes that the system serves everyone well, giving the parties flexibility to resolve issues during business hours. Union leaders would otherwise have to take unpaid leave or vacation time, but instead are allowed to draw from a bank of shared “release time” hours when they’re representing workers in disputes, haggling with the city over other issues, providing training or doing volunteer work on behalf of the union.

“Union release time for our city workers is used not only for representation, but we provide training for the city workers at no cost to the city, (and) CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and drowning prevention classes to the public,” says Sheri Van Horsen, president of ASCFME Local 3111. “Workers sit on committees such as health and safety and contribute to saving the city money through a collaboration of ideas.”

Release time might also actually be saving the city on other expenses, says Lori Steward, labor relations administrator for Phoenix. Over the years, some union leaders have agreed to givebacks in other areas so that they can preserve or increase release time, which they view as critical to their ability to function effectively. “If they want to increase their release time, it is less wages or less leave time for the entire unit in order to fund that as a benefit,” Steward says.

Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, who opposes the legislation, says that eliminating release time would make it difficult or impossible for union leaders to hold dual roles in city governments. “It helps to have union reps who are not just professional advocacy people but people who are still professionals in the fields they are advocating for,” he says.

Dranias, of the Goldwater Institute, says the practice of including “release time” in union contracts is widespread in other states as well. Goldwater’s research has shown it to be particularly prevalent in “right to work” states, like Arizona, where employees cannot legally be forced to pay fees for union representation as a condition of their employment.

“The union needs some way to recoup the dues that they’re not getting from people who opted not to join the unions,” Dranias says. “It’s just another way that unions make up for the loss of the 100 percent membership that they get in other states.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.