By Terri Jo Neff
Attorneys for the Goldwater Institute and the City of Phoenix will be in court Wednesday to argue over whether government workers subjected to a collective bargaining agreement can be forced to finance union activities, including a union’s political endeavors.
The issue before Judge Daniel Martin of the Maricopa County Superior Court is a legal challenge brought on behalf of two city employees over a practice known as “release time” approved by the Phoenix City Council in 2019. Release time allows some city employees to be paid to work for their private union instead of working for the public.
Employees utilizing release time are allowed to engage in activities such as lobbying, union membership drives, filing grievances against the employer, and wage and benefit negotiations. Release time activities of city employees are subject to the discretion and control of the union, not the city which pays the employees.
In May 2019, the City of Phoenix signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 2384, Field Unit II (AFSCME) which serves as the exclusive bargaining unit for a wide range of public workers, including but not limited to electricians, mechanics, security guards, street technicians, and maintenance workers.
AFSCME is the nation’s largest public services employees union with more than 1.3 million working and retired members. The MOU applied to all City of Phoenix employees assigned under Field Unit II whether union members or not, and it provides for myriad release time benefits, including four full-time release positions.
“That means that four city employees are released full-time to work exclusively for the union at the public’s expense,” according to the Goldwater Institute, which also noted nearly 3,200 additional paid work hours are available to other union representatives. That is roughly equivalent to 80 weeks of full-time work.
The MOU between Phoenix and AFSCME also guarantees compensatory time for high-ranking union officials using release time, as well as additional hours and payment for AFSCME members who attend union seminars, lectures, conventions, and workshops.
In October 2019, attorneys with the Goldwater Institute sued the City of Phoenix on behalf of two Field Unit II city employees who contend the release time salaries and benefits in the MOU are funded by all government employees of a specific bargaining unit.
The result, the lawsuit argues, is that non-union members are forced to fund union activities in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with Arizona’s Right to Work laws and other state constitutional provisions, the employees contend. The lawsuit also contends the four full-time release time employees “are not contractually required to provide an accounting to the City for how they use release time.”
Judge Martin will hear oral arguments Wednesday and Friday in dueling motions for summary judgment filed by the parties. Court records show AFSCME has been granted intervenor status in the case.
Among the organizations also opposed to release time policies is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has developed draft legislation that lawmakers across the country can use in an effort to ban paid union activity by public employees.
Under the ALEC draft legislation, it would be “against public policy” for a public employer like the City of Phoenix to enter into a deal with any private union to compensate a public employee for union activities.
“While public employees should not be prohibited from freely associating outside of their employment duties, including hiring individuals to help represent their interests, this should occur at public employee, not taxpayer, expense,” according to the ALEC website.