New Congress, Same Old Attacks
With the 2014 elections bringing a new wave of anti-worker candidates into office, the attacks on federal employees have been coming at a rapid clip in the 114th Congress. One attack that is recurring in each session of Congress is the attempt to eliminate official time, the mechanism available to federal unions to carry out their legally-mandated duty of fair representation. Attacks on official time can take numerous forms – attached to appropriations bills, snuck into completely unrelated resolutions or introduced as a stand-alone bill. The most recent attack on official time comes in the form of a stand-alone bill (HR. 1658), and it comes from an extreme wing of Congress that counts among its core sponsors a representative that believes money is more important for men.
Official time is rooted in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which legally requires federal Unions to provide full representation to all members of a bargaining unit, regardless of their dues-paying membership status. Additionally, federal Unions are prohibited from collecting any other fees, often referred to as “agency fees,” associated with representational activities. In order to accomplish these representational responsibilities, official time was established. Moreover, employee representatives can only get official time through negotiations. This means the government, through its management, retain control over how much official time is used.
A common misconception is that official time is used for internal Union business. In reality, internal Union business (political activity, new member recruitment, etc.) is already expressly prohibited by law. Official time is used exclusively for agency-related business including collective bargaining negotiations, promoting workplace efficiency by bringing barriers to mission success to the attention of agency leadership and providing a crucial perspective in workplace reform discussions. In short, official time is efficient time.
Often, opponents of official time will cite the cost in the form of salaries of employees on official time. These figures are misleading because of the savings achieved by Union representatives on official time are not considered. Whether it be the reform of reimbursement for work-related travel or overhauling the performance management system for the Department of Defense (DoD), Union representatives on official time are discovering new efficiency that saves the federal government tens of millions of dollars each and every year. Through established labor-management partnerships, Union representatives on the local, agency and department level can work towards a more effective and responsive federal government. Employee representatives also play an important role in resolving workplace disputes informally rather than through the expensive EEO and MSPB processes, which often involve outside lawyers and are very time consuming.
But while government efficiency is an important element of official time, representational responsibilities are at the heart of the necessity of official time. Official time allows employee representatives to assist in policing and protecting merit system principles, through bargaining and the negotiated grievance procedure, to root out favoritism and discrimination in the workplace. Official time is also used to ensure that employee’s constitutional due process protections are followed with respect to discipline and other adverse actions. Official time is a critical element to creating a safe workplace that holds both employees and managers responsible for their actions. Presumably, Congress still wants hiring, terminations and promotions to be based on merit instead of the spoils system that existed prior to civil service reform after the assassination of President Garfield. Official time plays an important part in that process.
While we do not expect the extreme members of Congress to relent in their attacks on official time, we do hope that the rest of Congress understands the irreplaceable utility of official time as a tool to make our federal government more productive and accountable. Official time is efficient time.