Public money should pay for public functions, not the activities of private labor unions.
It’s one of the most corrupt and unlawful ways that the government provides favors to political benefactors and preferred special interests. In a practice called “release time,” governments allow labor unions to use other people’s money to pay for politically connected special interests to campaign for candidates, lobby for bigger government, and otherwise pursue the private interests of labor unions at the public’s expense.
Now, the state supreme courts in Texas and Arizona are about to hear cases that may fundamentally change how the activities of government labor unions are financed.
It’s not the first time that public-sector labor unions — i.e. government unions — have used the power of government to force taxpayers to pay for their work, which includes helping elect candidates that support their agenda. Up until recently, unions would bargain for provisions in labor agreements that required workers to pay union dues, even if those workers did not belong to the union or had no desire to support the union’s political activities. But then the U.S. Supreme Court decided Janus v. AFSCME and said that these so-called “agency fees” were unconstitutional because they violated employees’ First Amendment rights against compelled speech and association.
Government unions weren’t happy with having to respect employees’ First Amendment rights or taxpayers’ pocketbooks, so they implemented another scheme, “release time,” which forces the public to pay union salaries.
Under release time, government agencies “release” employees from the jobs for which they were hired and instead assign them to work for their private union. While on release time, these government employees engage in political and lobbying activities, negotiate higher wages and benefits, solicit new union members, attend union conferences and meetings, and file costly grievances against their public employer — all while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement.
As investigative reports from the Goldwater Institute (where one of us serves as vice president for litigation) have uncovered, release time is a pervasive practice nationwide, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Making matters worse, many governments don’t even bother tracking it — meaning the problem is even worse than we know.
When release time is included in labor agreements as part of “compensation” to all government employees, it violates free-speech and association protections in the same way as “agency fees” did in Janus, because it forces nonconsenting employees to finance union activities.
Release time also violates the rights of taxpayers. Nearly every state constitution has a “gift clause,” which prohibits cities and towns from granting public money to private individuals, associations, or corporations. In order for a government payment to satisfy this strict standard, payments must be for a public purpose, the government must maintain control over the expenditures, and the government must receive fair value in return for public payments.
Release time meets none of these requirements because it’s provided to unions as a blank check to use whenever and however union bosses see fit.
But Americans are waking up to this corrupt union scheme to steal their money. In the coming weeks in a case brought by two taxpayers, the Texas supreme court will soon decide whether release time violates taxpayer protections under the gift clause. And in a separate case brought by two city of Phoenix employees, the Arizona supreme court will soon decide whether release time violates the gift clause and unconstitutionally compels speech and association.
As Thomas Jefferson famously put it: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhor[s] is sinful and tyrannical.” Release time does precisely this because it directs employee compensation to the union without employee consent.
What’s more, public money should pay for public functions, not the activities of private labor unions. When government employers fund release time, they violate the gift clause because unions use release time for their own private purposes, not those of the taxpaying public.
The Arizona and Texas supreme courts have taken a big step forward in protecting the constitutional rights of their citizens by granting review in these release-time cases. Now let’s hope the justices can continue to lead the way in protecting individual liberty by striking down these pernicious government-labor-union abuses.