Is it Time to Stop Subsidizing Federal Unions with Tax Money?

Federal agencies spend millions of dollars each year to subsidize federal employee unions. The reasons for the continued subsidies are complex. The author poses the question: Is it time to stop subsidizing federal employee labor unions?

There are about 1.8 million Federal employees. About 70% are represented by unions or 1.25 million more or less. Some Federal agencies have a full time equivalent (FTE) union representative for as few as 125 employees.

Let’s up those numbers and say that there’s an FTE union representative for every 300 employees on average (a low number). That means that there are likely more than 4000 FTEs performing union work. The average Fed is probably paid GS-11 step 5 or (using the OHIO pay table) about $55,000 (some places more, some less).

The cost of this to taxpayers is in excess of $220,000,000. This doesn’t count benefits, which figured conservatively at 30%, ups the cost to about $286,000,000. This doesn’t count office space, office furniture, computers, phones, copies, or other costs but if it did, again conservatively figured, the number exceeds $500,000,000.

So what do Joe and Mary Taxpayer get for the money?

The simple answer is we don’t know. Unions are not accountable to anyone for these expenditures. I’ve been in the business a long time and have never heard of an audit of equipment provided the union, a productivity improvement study showing the cost/benefit analysis or any other systematic examination of the cost. In fact, if you want to get an unfair labor practice filed against you and you’re a Federal manager, merely ask the union representative what he was doing while on the clock.

When the Federal labor law passed in 1978, there was talk about what was appropriate for a Federal agency to provide a union in terms of time and facilities. The statute left it pretty much up to bargaining or at least it appeared so at the time. Since then “reasonable” official time and “customary” facilities and services have turned into mandatory official time and most facilities and services available. How did it come to this?

In the late 90’s the Office of Personnel Management spent some time trying to gather data on how much official time was used by Federal employees for union representation. The effort was quickly abandoned. On board OPM at the time were a number of former AFGE employees, officials and at least one lawyer who, rumor has it, decided that gathering stats on union activity was inconsistent with the administration’s partnership objectives and the effort died. Very few people were surprised.

So who decided all this? A number of players can be blamed. The Federal Labor Relations Authority case law has rendered negotiable just about any amount of official time or facility and service. Federal employee union officials can bargain the use of official time to lobby Congress.

Isn’t it true that it would violate Federal law for a Federal employee to lobby Congress? Apparently, the Authority thinks its law is better than others. Maybe so. Then there’s the Federal Service Impasses Panel which historically found official time an easy giveaway. In all fairness to the current FLRA and FSIP, they have not ruled on these issues much if at all. Think the unions may be waiting for a friendlier ear?

The biggest offender is agency management. It has been long axiomatic in Federal labor relations that a Federal union will trade away just about any employee benefit to get a union perk. I’ve seen it myself, many times. Agencies, living in the real world, decide to give a union bennie to get something done. Good management? Good representation? You decide.

In addition to the subsidies provided by the Federal government, unions collect dues. If it is a sin to ask where the government money goes, don’t even think about inquiring where the dues money is headed. Ask about Political Action Committees if you dare, you anti-union, jack-booted enslaver of the proletariat!

45 years ago at the time of the first Executive Order issued by President John Kennedy and perhaps even 28 years ago (5 U.S.C. 7101), an argument could be made that Federal unions were in the embryonic stages of their development. If indeed, as Congress legislated in 1978, collective bargaining is in the public interest, might the question be ripe, “Has Federal organized labor grown up sufficiently to stand on its own two feet?”

It can be argued that the subsidy of Federal unions has made them less, on the whole, active in their support of Federal employees. If you don’t have to earn it, you may not think it’s worth much work. Arbitration has been on the decline in the Federal sector for years. Could this be a function not only of the availability of other appeal systems but that arbitration costs dues money which can be better spent on political ends?

Some readers of this article may see an anti-union bias. Others may see a legitimate concern for the quality of employee representation and advocacy. You be the judge.

As always and particularly in this context, the opinions expressed (were there any?) are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.