When Taxpayers Pay for Unions

by Alec Torres

Release time, when taxpayers foot the bill for union activities, faces a legal challenge in Arizona.

Across the country, taxpayers are paying for public employees to leave their official duties and work full-time for their unions. The practice is called “release time” (or “official time” at the federal level), and it can cost even municipal governments millions. The practice, which has been widespread for decades, is now being threatened in the halls of a county courthouse in Phoenix.

Last Tuesday marked the second and final day of hearings for Cheatham v. DiCiccio, wherein two taxpayers are challenging the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association’s (PLEA) long-held practice of using police officers’ release time for union work. The prospects look for the plaintiffs good.

Clint Bolick, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, is confident that the judge will rule in their favor. “The judge has already granted two injunctions against release time,” he tells me, “and I think she’s having a trial to allow the parties to develop their records.” The two injunctions have led many police officers to be sent back to training because they had been working full-time and exclusively for the union since the 1990s.

The core of the case rests on the Arizona constitution’s gift clause, different forms of which are present in almost all 50 states. The gift clause stipulates that public funds cannot be used for private purposes, and, as the prosecution argues, release time is for the private benefit of the union. “Basically, this is a classic gift-clause violation because it is a diversion of funds from one of the most important functions that government provides to a private organization to use for its own purposes,” Bolick says.

What’s worse, PLEA, like other unions, has used publicly funded release time for overtly political actions. “They’re using it for lobbying purposes, they use it to recruit members,” Bolick says. “They use it to negotiate their very own contracts. . . . They endorse candidates.” Ironically, in contract negotiation, taxpayers are footing the bill for both the city and the union to negotiate with each other.

And the total cost? “In Phoenix, we have seven public-employee unions,” Bolick explains. “Our initial report was that it was $3.2 million a year, and that’s just Phoenix. And we have discovered that a significant amount of the release time is not reflected in those costs, so it’s actually more than $3.2 million.”

PLEA has not responded to requests for comment as of this writing.

The campaign against release time in Phoenix began in 2010 after Sal DiCiccio, a newly elected city councilman, took an interest in pension abuse and fiscal reform. (DiCiccio is technically the defendant representing the city, so that he can testify against release time in the trial.) He tells me that he, along with every other city councilman, once voted for union release in a contract. The language of the contract was ambiguous and information on the costs of union agreements was lacking. The city council had been voting unanimously for the contracts for decades.

“In 2010, I started digging into it, and then city staff started preventing me from getting information,” DiCiccio tells me. “And then I wanted to get total-compensation numbers. It was getting very difficult for me to get information from them. It took me six or seven months just to get the compensation numbers for employees.”

When he finally got figures, DiCiccio discovered that millions were being spent for public employees to work full-time for unions. His finding was corroborated by a Goldwater Institute report, written by Mark Flatten, which revealed that release time was being used for political purposes and that taxpayer were footing the bill.

DiCiccio has been attacked for lobbying against release time and other union interests. “The unions, I’m hearing, spent $1.1 million in my last election,” he says. “This is a city-council race in my district, and my district is only about 190,000 people.” He explains that the unions sent firefighters to go door to door every weekend and that union leaders from other cities came to lobby against him. Despite that effort, he won by nine points.

The city government is not predisposed to fight the unions — DiCiccio says that, from the nine city-council members, he can count on only three or four votes, including his own, against release time and that the mayor is beholden to the unions — and so the battle moved to the courts in 2012. If the county judge rules against release time, Bolick and DiCiccio expect the unions to appeal, and the case could eventually reach the state supreme court. Because most other states have a version of the gift clause, their hope is that this case will provide precedent for taxpayers to fight union abuse across the country.

“This case is the tip of a massive iceberg that was only recently discovered,” Bolick says. “This is a nationwide practice that occurs at the federal and local levels. . . . It’s not limited to police departments by any stretch of the imagination.”

After years of court proceedings following an initial complaint filed by the Goldwater Institute in 2011, a full decision on the case is expected within a few weeks.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.