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Criminal Justice & Government Reform: Public Sector Union Release Time

TCCRI's recently published Criminal Justice & Government Reform Task Force Report examined the topic of public sector union release time. What follows is an excerpt from the Report on that topic.


Texas is a state that values voluntary participation in labor organizations. Indeed, the specific “Right to Organize” under Texas law provides that: “All persons engaged in any kind of labor may associate and form trade unions and other organizations to protect themselves in their personal labor in their respective employment.” Indeed, “[a] person's inherent right to work and to bargain freely with the person's employer, individually or collectively, for terms of the person's employment may not be denied or infringed by law or by any organization.”

Despite this permissive and encouraging approach to organized labor, Texas prohibits compelled participation in organized labor. As a right to work state, Texas law provides that “[a] person may not be denied employment based on membership or non-membership in a labor union.”iii Furthermore, any contract requiring membership in a labor union or to remain in a labor union is void.iv Right-to-work policies are primarily about the liberty of workers to join or not join organized labor, but the economic benefits of right-to-work laws are well-established.

Policy Recommendation: Prohibit “Release Time” in Public Employee Union Contracts

Article 3, Section 51 of the Texas Constitution prohibits “the making of any grant of public moneys to any individual, association of individuals, municipal or other corporations whatsoever[.]” Article 3, Section 52 further restricts the ability of “any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation whatsoever[.]” Despite these provisions and the general prohibition on compelled support of labor unions, local government contracts often include provisions supportive of union activity, subsidizing them both financially and operationally.

“Release time” (also called “association business leave”) is a provision in public employee contracts that pays union officers for engaging in union activity, sometimes exclusively so. According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, release time costs federal taxpayers roughly $122 million annually. State and local figures are more difficult to ascertain, but in Austin, the cost of release time for unionized police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel in 2012 and 2013 was over $800,000. The Goldwater Institute estimates the total cost of release time nationally at all levels of government is $1 billion per year.

What activities are subsidized by release time pay? Mark Pulliam explains in City Journal:

What exactly are union officers allowed to do on the taxpayers’ nickel while on “release time”? Under the current union contract, the officers of AFA Local 975 can participate in negotiations, adjust grievances, attend dispute-resolution proceedings, attend union conferences and meetings, and even engage in partisan political activities related to “wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work” affecting members of the union. In other words, city officials have empowered officers of AFA Local 975 to lobby against the interests of the taxpayers—while being paid by the taxpayers.

Indeed, the contract between the City of Austin and the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 975 requires the city to pay for as much as 5,600 hours of release time each year. That is but one example. The Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report in 2015 highlighting several release time abuses in Texas. The San Antonio Fire Department granted over 4,200 hours of release time in 2012 and another 4,600+ hours in 2013, which cost taxpayers over $135,000 and $151,000, respectively. San Antonio’s Police Department granted even more release time, issuing over 7,900 hours in 2012 for a taxpayer cost of over $252,000.

Release time is not exclusively a Texas issue. Indeed, it was prohibited in Missouri as part of a larger legislative package on right to work and organized labor. The language in the Missouri bill reads as follows:

Every labor agreement shall expressly prohibit labor organization representatives and public employees from accepting paid time, other than unused paid time off that was accrued by such public employees, by a public body for the purposes of conducting labor organization-related activities concerning collective bargaining, including, but not limited to, negotiations, bargaining meetings, meet and confer sessions, and any other collective bargaining-related activity, provided that every labor agreement may allow for paid time off for the purposes of grievance-handling, advisory committees, establishing a work calendar, and internal and external communication[.]

Similar language in Texas would reinforce its intention to remain a right to work state where union membership and support are entirely voluntary. Such a statute would reinforce a 1979 opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office that took the position that release time is an illegal gift of public funds for a non-public purpose. Yet, this practice continues. The subsidization of public sector unions should be expressly prohibited in Texas law.

You can read this section in full and the rest of the report here.


Note that citations have been removed from this excerpt, but are present in the full report linked above.


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