PHOENIX — Sal DiCiccio says he’s sorry. It is, he says, no excuse that the complex labor contracts that he, as a member of the city council, voted to ratify for city employees were presented to the council less than a week before the vote. He says he should have seen that the contracts contain some indefensible, not to mention unconstitutional, provisions, such as those pertaining to “release time.”
Read on, and then find out if similar things are occurring in your community. They probably are.
The “gift clause” in Arizona’s Constitution and similar provisions in some other states’ constitutions are supposed to prevent the state government or municipal governments from conferring special benefits on “any individual, association, or corporation.” The proscribed benefits include gifts, loans of state credit, donations, grants or subsidies.
This clause has been largely vitiated by Arizona courts’ decisions allowing entanglements of government and private interests that supposedly serve a “public purpose” or provide a “public benefit.” These are loopholes large enough to drive a truck through — a truck carrying $900,000. That is the estimated value of the release time taxpayers are funding just for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), the police union. The $900,000 pays union officials to work exclusively performing undefined union business, including lobbying, on the city’s time and the taxpayers’ dime.
Mark Flatten of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, says all six of the top PLEA officers derive full pay and benefits from the city, although each is assigned full time to the union — and each is also entitled to 160 hours of annual extra-pay overtime. Officials of the six other public employees unions also have full-time city jobs. All told, the annual bill for 73,000 hours of release time is $3.7 million.
In 2007, Phoenix voters endorsed a sales tax increase to pay for more police and firefighters. DiCiccio, who is working for better contracts, knows that few voters knew about the existence, let alone the costs, of release time.
Other states and local governments have release time provisions in contracts with public employees, as do some federal contracts. The unions, and their partners and enablers in government, insist that release time activities improve government employees’ morale and efficiency and they receive the release time benefit in lieu of higher wages and benefits. But how could that be demonstrated?
If release time really involves no increase in aggregate compensation to union members, why do unions favor this roundabout route to compensation? One reason, perhaps, is to punish police officers who do not join the union: They see some of their potential wages go instead to union officials. Also, if union activities were paid for by union dues rather than tax dollars, there would be less dues money available for campaign contributions to the grateful politicians who negotiate release time benefits for the contributing unions.
This is a crucial difference between release time provisions negotiated by private companies: In the private sector, unions are not effectively on both sides of the negotiation table. Collusion between the employer and the employees’ union is inherent in public-sector unionization, particularly because public-sector employers and employees have congruent interests in increasing government budgets.
Release time provisions have existed for 40 years. What is new is a willingness to call attention to them and contest them, a willingness born of the pressure the recession has put on municipal budgets. Just as a recession has the benefit of making private enterprises more conscious of efficiencies, it makes governments less cavalier about expenditures.
Until now, Wisconsin has been ground zero in the spreading desire to reconsider the costly prerogatives of public-sector unions. In January, however, a series of bills were introduced in the Arizona Legislature to end release time and even end collective bargaining.
Another measure would end the practice of the state and local governments collecting dues for the unions by deducting them from employees’ paychecks. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did this by executive order on his first day in office seven years ago. Union dues collections then declined 90 percent. And last month Indiana became the first Midwestern industrial state to become a right-to-work state.
As a percentage of the workforce, private-sector unionization peaked in 1954. Now, thanks to events here and in Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere, and thanks to local officials like DiCiccio, public-sector unionization, which began in the 1950s, may have passed its apogee.