“Official time” refers to a practice under which the federal government pays the salaries of federal employees who work as union representatives. In other words, the government pays a person to work on behalf of the union while still receiving salary as a federal employee.
The concept is included in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Official time is not supposed to be used for internal union business. Some federal union officials are paid a full time federal employee salary and work exclusively as a union representative. The theory behind the official time provision is that federal unions have to represent all employees in the bargaining unit, whether or not they pay dues to the union.
Legislation has been introduced (H.R. 568) that would require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to provide annual reports to Congress on the amount of official time used by federal employees. In other words, the legislation would require an accounting of how much paid government time is being used to pay union officials and how many federal employees are working as full time union representatives. The bill was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 22.
The official time practice strikes some as odd because it results in the government spending money to pay union representatives to file grievances, unfair labor practices, or prepare various appeals or complaints from employees or from the union. After paying the union representatives’ salaries, the government then spends large amounts of money to pay the salaries of lawyers, managers, human resources specialists and, of course, union representatives, in defending or prosecuting cases against the government on behalf of individual employees. No one really knows the total cost of this system but we do know that it is a considerable amount of money being spent on the government’s administrative expenses.
The reality is that we do not know with any accuracy how much money the federal government spends on salaries for union officials. (See Interesting Twists in OPM’s Official Time Report) OPM reports that agencies reported 3,395,187 hours used in 2012. That figure is certainly lower than the real figure as indicated in the “Interesting Twists” article. But, even with the hours that were reported to the Office of Personnel Management, the cost to the federal government was $156 million—a 12 percent increase over the previous year. OPM says that the increase in amount of official time used was because there are more employees represented by unions, more bargaining with unions in several large agencies, the growing use of labor-management forums and more emphasis “on accurately documenting official time compared to previous years.”
Republicans often do not like the practice of official time. In part, this is probably because federal unions use their organizations’ power to raise money and provide volunteers in political campaigns to help Democrats get elected. The more time and money unions have to spend, the more they can help the political opposition gain more power.
The federal workforce is supposed to be politically neutral. Each year, there are cases prosecuted by the Special Counsel alleging violations of the “Hatch Act” which is supposed to ensure political neutrality by federal employees. (See, for example, Election Season and Hatch Act Don’t Mix) The Hatch Act does help in this goal. It has become weaker over time, in part because unions have gotten stronger, the restrictions on political activity have been weakened and unions have been able to use their power as an organization to lobby in Congress to meet their goals.
Federal employee unions are politically active. They normally support Democrats in many election campaigns. In return, the Democrats provide benefits to the unions by generally increasing their bargaining power in various ways and by giving them more access to top level officials. Once in office, they are also able to assist unions in gaining more power by making political appointments with individuals from a union background that work to increase the bargaining power through their decisions issued by the relevant federal agencies.
The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 and modified in 1993 by removing the prohibition on participation in “political management or political campaigns.”
The “spoils system” was created in the 19th century by Andrew Jackson. After Jackson’s election in 1828, he implemented his philosophy summarized as “to the victors go the spoils.” In practice, this meant that he could fill federal jobs with his political supporters. He set a precedent followed by the major parties for the next fifty years and new presidents were inundated by those who wanted a federal job. One of these disappointed job seekers, who had worked in the Garfield campaign, shot President Garfield in 1881. After his assassination, Congress decided that a system of hiring federal workers who owed their political loyalty to the party in power did not create an effective system of government.
The result was the Pendleton Act of 1883 which mandated competitive examinations for federal employees rather than political loyalty or affiliation. In order to enforce the merit system, the Act also created the United States Civil Service Commission. In 1912, the Lloyd-Lafollette act was passed to provide job protection for federal employees who were subject to politically motivated removals without recourse. More recently, competitive examinations are no longer used in selecting people to fill most government positions.
There has historically been tension between the desire of politicians to use the federal workforce for their own purposes and the desire to have a workforce that is effective, efficient and works to implement the policies of the elected administration. That tension still exists today. Unions did not have any meaningful authority in government until President Kennedy issued an executive order in 1962 granting unions the right to represent employees. While we are a long way from the spoils system of the 19th century, the role of government employee unions has introduced a strong political element into the federal workforce as indicated by the on-going tension between the political parties (primarily Democrats) to benefit from the unions’ time and money to enhance political power and the efforts (primarily from Republicans) to reduce the role of unions and their ability to aid one political party over others.
Chances are the new legislation to prohibit the use of official time by unions will not become law in 2013. Reflecting the symbolism of the on-going political struggle, the bill may pass the Republican controlled House but is unlikely to pass the Senate which is controlled by Democrats. If it does pass, it would probably be passed as part of a larger political agreement, perhaps as part of a budget agreement under which some actions would be taken to try attract Republican support by limiting government spending in some ways and also increasing spending in ways that would garner support by Democrats.