Politics & Policy

Union Time on Taxpayers’ Dime

New Jersey governor-elect Phil Murhy speaks to supporters in Asbury Park on election night, November 7, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
New Jersey schools pay union representatives to work against the public interest.

Observing that New Jersey governor Phil Murphy fired Paula White, an eminently qualified commissioner at the Department of Education, because she supported tenure reform and charter schools, the Wall Street Journal editorial board recently lamented that the teachers’ union in New Jersey is “the real boss in Trenton.” Sadly, the union’s power goes beyond control over just one politician. And by coopting political leaders, the union has coopted New Jersey tax dollars to finance its own private activities.

For decades, taxpayers have been footing the bill for New Jersey’s unions, including its state and local teachers’ unions, in a practice called “release time.” Under release time, school districts and other public agencies allow employees to be released from the government jobs for which they were hired, and work exclusively for their private union. They are allowed to perform this union work full-time or part-time — all while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement.

Release time exists throughout the United States, but it is particularly prevalent in the Garden State. A report by New Jersey’s State Commission of Investigation found “a range of instances” in which public-sector-union representatives “receive full- or part-time paid leave from government jobs to conduct union work at taxpayer expense” — to the tune of nearly $7 million a year in salaries and benefits. Given that the commission investigated only a limited number of districts and agencies, the actual cost of release time undoubtedly exceeds this amount.

Release time is negotiated through collective-bargaining agreements, under which school districts and local governments release full-time employees from their government duties to engage in activities that directly support the mission of their unions. These activities include allowing government-funded workers to lobby government, negotiate higher wages and benefits, solicit new union members, attend union conferences and meetings, and file costly grievances.

Not only does this amount to paying the government to lobby itself, but many of these private activities, such as negotiating new contracts and filing employment grievances, are directly contrary to the interests of the district employer. And when public employees use release time to negotiate over wages and benefits, taxpayers are funding both sides of the negotiation, with no seat at the table themselves.

Not only does release time amount to paying the government to lobby itself, but many of these private activities, such as negotiating new contracts and filing employment grievances, are directly contrary to the interests of the district employer.

Represented by attorneys from the Goldwater Institute, a pair of New Jersey taxpayers have filed an appeal in a case challenging release time in the Jersey City school district. Under the current collective-bargaining agreement between the district and the Jersey City Education Association, the district is required to pay the salaries of two full-time teachers who are being released to do union work. The cost to New Jersey taxpayers is almost $1.2 million over the five-year course of the agreement.

Under the New Jersey constitution’s gift clause — a clause that exists in 47 state constitutions — government agencies are prohibited from giving public money to private organizations and interests. As the Goldwater Institute has argued in this case, when school districts release full-time teachers from the classroom to pursue the private interests of their unions with little control or oversight, it constitutes an impermissible gift to a private association and violates the state constitution. The fact that unions actively engage in political activities to elect and defeat school-board members — in other words, unions elect their own bosses — is another argument in favor of the elimination of release time.

The authors of New Jersey’s constitution knew that the political process was susceptible to special-interest influence, which is why they adopted the gift clause. This is also why it is particularly important that the judiciary step in to enforce this crucial taxpayer protection.

The teachers’ unions may dictate Governor Murphy’s agenda, but for the sake of taxpayers throughout the state, let’s hope New Jersey’s appellate courts are less susceptible to capture.

Jon Riches is the director of national litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

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