Lawmakers Revive Effort to End Union Work on the Government's Dime

 Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., sponsored the Senate bill. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., sponsored the Senate bill. David Goldman/AP

Republican lawmakers took aim at a familiar target last week, introducing a bill to strip federal employees of the ability to conduct union work while on the clock at their government jobs.

The Federal Employees Accountability Act would prevent federal workers from engaging in “official time,” a practice established in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act to allow feds to perform union functions while receiving a federal salary and working in a federal space. Official time was created as trade off, because federal unions must represent and negotiate for individuals not on their rolls.  

The bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., and in the Senate by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga, would bar federal employees from engaging in collective bargaining or participating in arbitration on behalf of a union against their employer.

“After examining the practices of over 60 government agencies, my office has found an astounding amount of government waste,” Hice said. “By eliminating the ‘official time’ practice, we will return over a billion dollars to hardworking American taxpayers, and shed this shady, wasteful practice that only benefits unions.”

The government spent $157.2 million in fiscal 2012 on employees working 3.43 million hours of official time, according to the latest figures from the Office of Personnel Management. That marks about a 19 percent increase in the number of official hours since fiscal 2008. Official time usage varies greatly by agency. Some employees work full time on union activities despite earning federal salaries, though most official time users spend only a portion of their weeks conducting union work.

“While on the taxpayers’ dime, federal employees should not be allowed to spend the entire day, every day, conducting union-related business and not doing the government job they were hired for,” Isakson said. “The original intent of ‘official time’ has outlived its purpose and been taken much further than ever intended. This is commonsense legislation that would help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being used for union activities that should instead be conducted during the employees’ paid time off, as would be demanded in the private sector.”

Unions defended the practice of official time as an important tool through which agency management can communicate with and engage the workforce.

“Official time gives agencies an easy way to include employee input into any mission-related challenges that the agencies may face,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox, “and it also is used to help resolve conflicts that arise in the workplace without resorting to more expensive and time-consuming administrative or legal procedures.”

Federal employee unions have long warned of an effort to outlaw official time, saying it was an inevitable tactic in the larger fight against organized labor. Rep. Phil Gingery, a fellow Georgia Republican who no longer serves in the House, introduced similar legislation in each of the last three congresses, but those measures never became law. Unions worry the bill could face a friendlier reception in the now-Republican controlled Senate.

The labor groups have said the effort would severely damage their ability to operate, and the bill is a solution in search of a problem.

“There is no justifiable reason for taking away a longstanding, necessary tool that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades,” Cox said.

Fox News recently launched a “special report” to highlight the practice of official time. Watch it below: 

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