by Steve Gill
Until the recent Chicago Teachers’ strike many people rarely gave public sector unions much thought. Perhaps we should be thankful for their not so gentle reminder that striking public employees can hold the public hostage. In 1979, the Tennessee Legislature wisely banned strikes – but the power of the public sector unions to use OUR money for THEIR benefit remains a problem.
The very nature of many public services provides government a monopoly or near monopoly. With the absence of competition that exists in the private sector public sector unions literally have a stranglehold over crucial public services. As former New York Times reporter A. H. Raskin wrote in 1968: “The community cannot tolerate the notion that it is defenseless at the hands of organized workers to whom it has entrusted responsibility for essential services.” This applies whether we are talking about fire or police services, transit or public utilities, or education.
Although well-hidden, it is increasingly clear that a lot of taxpayer dollars are being used by federal, state, and local government entities for salary and benefits for employees performing union work on taxpayer time. This work does not directly or primarily benefit the public yet is almost certainly costing millions of dollars nationally.
One frequently used tactic in the public sector union “shell game” with taxpayer money is called “release time.” This scheme allows public sector unions to exempt certain union employees from their job duties and to do full-time work on behalf of the union — while continuing to receive a government salary and benefits. A New Jersey Commission of Investigation report from 2012 stated that some “union officials have been on paid leave for years or even decades while occupying government job titles but doing no government work.” In some cases taxpayers also pick up the cost for “cars, office space, computers and other equipment used for union business. Despite the public’s stake in these types of arrangements, they are often crafted in ways that defy public transparency.”
We can find examples of this same practice right here in Tennessee. For example, in Nashville, Metro Schools agreed to honor an old contract provision paying half of MNEA president Stephen Henry’s $66,103 salary and half of MNEA vice president Erick Huth’s $85,620 salary in 2011-2012. The allotment of this one “full time equivalent” position has also been continued in 2012-2013. These men focus ALL of their work time on UNION business rather than educating Nashville students – but taxpayers pick up half the tab for their salaries. This is being replicated in several of the 137 school districts across the state. In addition, Metro Schools, also offers continued support to the SEIU and the Steelworkers Union. That level of support is not as clearly defined or disclosed. The State even gives leave for union officials to hold statewide office as president of a professional employees’ association (TCA 49-5-715).
In 2011, Knox County School Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre denied Knox County Education Association President Sherry Morgan a two-year release time from the classroom, which would have also guaranteed her position back at the school she left after her term as a union officer ended. Ms. Morgan complained that “Knox County will be the only large urban local in the state of Tennessee that does not have a full-time release President.” She also pointed out: “Shelby County, Memphis City, Hamilton County Education Association, Metro Nashville Education Association, they all have full-time release Presidents.”
Others are beginning to take notice of, and raise objections to, the use of increasingly limited taxpayer dollars for union purposes rather than educating children. Professional Educators of Tennessee has opposed the use of release for association leaders to conduct association business. “If government did not give paid release time to union leaders, additional money could go to classroom needs or even wages and benefits of classroom teachers,” according to PET Executive Director J. C. Bowman. “Release time takes experienced teachers out of the classroom and puts them behind desks doing union work. Taxpayers are paying for the education of children, not to fund the union or even our association,” he added. This practice is a slap in the face to taxpayers who consistently agree to provide more tax revenue to public schools.
The “release time” scheme is blatantly deceptive and a waste of taxpayer money.
Dollars that unions extract from their members that would otherwise be spent paying the salaries of their top officers are freed up for other activities, including lobbying and campaigning – expenditures that would never receive taxpayer approval here in Tennessee. That is why they try to keep it hidden from view.
Public sector unions should be forced to give up “release time” money and spend union dues for union work…not taxpayer dollars. It is time for Tennessee public sector unions to pay their own bills rather than secretly shifting that burden to the taxpayers. Public employees should be entitled to receive compensated leave time for limited amounts of personal purposes or authorized professional development but NOT to compensate for union activities. Tennessee taxpayers deserve better…and we should demand that our legislators and the Governor put an end to this scheme once and for all.
Steve Gill is an attorney, nationally syndicated radio talk host and political commentator in Nashville. His website can be found at www.gillreport.com.