Union Price Tag Grows at a Cost to U.S. Taxpayer

Union behavior and their bargaining power has been of intense interest in many states. As the country continues to work its way out of a recession and the unemployment level is still hovering at a high 9 percent, the additional costs of unions are again being scrutinized in Washington.

Unlike state government worker unions, federal employees of unionized agencies are not required to join the union or pay mandatory dues. Wisconsin lawmakers sought to abridge that power, sending the nation into a frenzy.

Of specific interest on Capitol Hill Wednesday was something known as official time. Official time is a federal term for the hours spent by union officials employed by the government conducting union business. The officials are paid their normal government salaries for this work on behalf of the unions.

Official time is seen by supporters as compensation for the fact that unions are required to handle labor issues related to all employees, not just union members. When union officials negotiate with federal managers over work rules, like appropriate attire and other human resource requirements, those functions are carried out under official time.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and Labor Policy, called it "charity" to federal employee unions.

“This came at a cost of $129 million to American taxpayers,” he says, citing a 2009 Office of Personnel Management report.

That’s about three million hours of official time.

The provision was included in a law passed by Congress in 1978, signed by President Jimmy Carter. The law stipulated time on the clock could be used as long as that time is negotiated with management and is agreed "to be reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest."

But conservatives in Congress say it isn’t reasonable anymore and have railed against what they claim are inordinately high government pay rates that are being used as a negotiating tactic by unions.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma this week highlighted a report from the Congressional Research Service, first reported by the Washington Times, which found 77,000 federal employees earn a higher salary than their respective governors. A union representing federal employees said the bigger problem is payments to contractors, not government workers.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., thinks Republicans are targeting unions and argues official time is fair. “This is absurd. Give me a break. “

Union leaders say official time makes the government run more efficiently, and ultimately saves money.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said at the House hearing Wednesday, “If workers and managements are really communicating, work place problems that would otherwise escalate into costly litigation can be dealt with promptly and more informally.”

For now, Republicans aren’t buying that argument. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., has proposed a bill called the Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2011, which would repeal parts of the 1978 law, and limit how and when federal employees could use official time.