Last week, a House subcommittee held a hearing on “rightsizing” the federal workforce, without ever showing it is the wrong size. The latest drip on this list fell Wednesday as the subcommittee considered legislation that would severely limit the ability of labor representatives to do union work on government time.
This practice, known as “official time,” is the target of legislation introduced by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). His bill would stop the use of official time for collective bargaining, and he encouraged the panel to amend the measure so official time would be eliminated all together.
Gingrey said he “in no way, shape or form” wants to take away employee rights, a statement that John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who also testified, doesn’t believe for a minute.
“The issue,” Gingrey insisted, “is who pays.”
In testimony submitted to the subcommittee, Gingrey said, “Official time is not fair to the government or the taxpayer and works solely to the benefit of labor unions and employees who serve as its representative or steward. With an extraordinary amount of federal employees authorized to use 100% official time on behalf of their union, the federal government loses the immensely valuable civil service for which he or she was originally hired to perform. Additionally, taxpayers pay for absolutely no official productivity on their own behalf while federal employees use official time.”
No one knows, by the way, how many employees are authorized for 100 percent official time, a failing of the Office of Personnel Management’s reporting on this program. So, “an extraordinary amount” could be one or two if you don’t want any official time at all.
There is a theoretical argument against having the federal government pay union reps for work that sometimes is in opposition to the wishes of government managers. And the workforce might have reason to wonder whether their reps are too cozy with the management that pays their salaries.
But these valid concerns don’t take into account the reasons Congress provided for official time. Those reasons are more involved than theoretical or ideological objections would indicate.
The main reason for official time is that Uncle Sam requires unions to represent employees who are not members and who pay no fee for the union services they use. So he made a deal with organized labor. It provides service even to those who don’t pay for it, and the government allows some employees to be paid by the government for time they spend on certain union activities.
Sam could do away with official time if he said all employees in a bargaining unit must join the union that represents them. But this closed-shop approach is a non-starter in the federal government.