Phoenix Taxpayers Foot Huge Bill for Union Activities

Published October 12, 2011

Phoenix taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay full salary and benefits for city employees to work exclusively for labor unions, a Goldwater Institute investigation has found.

Collective bargaining agreements with seven labor organizations require the city to pay union officers and provide members with thousands of additional hours to conduct union business instead of doing their government jobs.

The total cost to Phoenix taxpayers is about $3.7 million per year, based on payroll records supplied by the city. In all, more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayers’ expense are permitted in the agreements.

City Jobs but No City Work

The top officials in all the unions have regular jobs with the city, and buried in the labor agreements are provisions for those employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.

For top officers, the typical amount of annual release time is 2,080 hours, a full year of work based on 52 weeks at 40 hours each. They continue to draw full pay and benefits, just as if they were showing up for their regular jobs. But they are released from their regular duties to conduct undefined union business.

Union officials say the time is a good investment that leads to a more productive workforce. Critics say it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money.

“It’s shocking,” said Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who has battled with unions that represent city workers over employee pay and his efforts to trim spending. “Taxpayers should not be funding union activities. It should all come out of union dues.”

DiCiccio voted for the union contracts in March 2010, as did every other council member present. The provisions for release time have long been a part of city contracts with labor organizations, but DiCiccio said he was unaware of them until recently.

Cops Get Cushiest Contract

The most generous contract both in terms of both money and time is between the city and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), which represents frontline police officers.

All six of the top officials at PLEA draw their full pay and benefits from the city, even though they are assigned fulltime to the union. Each is also entitled to 160 hours of overtime annually.

All the other unions have the salaries and benefits of their top officials paid by the taxpayers.

Each of the unions also receives banks of additional release time ranging from a few hundred hours to 5,500 hours annually, which members can use to conduct union business on city time.

Additional Payouts

One union leader says it was city officials who insisted on providing additional release hours, which had become a standard provision in contracts with other labor organizations.

PLEA and the Phoenix Fire Fighters Association Local 493 each get 500 hours of annual city-paid time for a lobbyist. The firefighters’ union also gets a taxpayer-funded secretary.

Two other unions each receive payments of $14,000 from the city to pay for member training and conferences, and a third gets a $2,000 parking allowance.

Other sections of the labor agreements allowing city-paid release time are difficult to quantify because they do not specify the number of hours allowed for certain tasks. They instead state time spent on such things as instructing union stewards on the terms of new two-year contracts does not count against the other hours specifically allotted.

City Money on Top of Dues

The money coming from taxpayers is in addition to union dues that each of the labor organizations receives from its members, dues collected by the city through payroll deductions.

Some top union officials also draw salaries or stipends from their labor organization in addition to their city checks while working exclusively on union business.

Phoenix is not alone in treating top union officials this way. Other metro-Phoenix cities have similar contracts, but they tend to be less generous and involve fewer labor organizations. The federal government also allows for union business to be done on taxpayer time, but it prohibits release hours for internal union activities. There is no such restriction in the Phoenix contracts.

Ed Zuercher, Phoenix’s assistant city manager, said if union officials trade release hours for lower overall wage and benefits packages for their members, it does not end up costing the city anything extra. Release time allows unions to provide services such as training on city ordinances and job requirements, which leads to better relations between management and employees, and ultimately better service to residents, Zuercher said.

State Constitutional Prohibition?

“It is about how we relate to our employees in a unionized work environment,” Zuercher said, adding negotiation with labor groups is required by city ordinance.

James Tierney, president of the AFSCME local that represents skilled laborers such as electricians and mechanics in the city, said the work done by unions improves worker productivity and morale. Representing rank-and-file workers at grievance and disciplinary hearings shields them from bad decisions made by the city’s bloated management, Tierney said.

But using taxpayer dollars for the salaries and benefits of union officials likely violates the state constitution’s prohibition against using public funds to benefit private organizations, said Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.

Mark Flatten ([email protected]) is an investigative reporter with the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, which first reported this story. Used with permission.