Setting the Record Straight on Union Official Time: An Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander


Dear Senator Alexander,

I write in response to your March 1, 2013 letter to Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris. I would like to start by thanking you for pointing out the mismanagement of the Office of Job Corps and the deficient FY 2013 budget request for the program that does not accurately reflect its true cost. We agree that Job Corps centers should not be closed to score political points. I’ve attached our detailed comments on this issue for your information and offer my support in working together on the issues you raise. I hope today’s hearing on the Job Corps budget shortfall will help elevate this important matter.

However, I am deeply troubled by your question, “Is the agency reducing official time allowed to employees to conduct union business..?” This question has nothing whatsoever to do with the maladministration of the Job Corps program or of any of the other issues raised in your letter.

As you should know, the use of official time for “union business” is prohibited by law. See 5 USC 7131(b). Agencies cannot reduce its use below zero.

The use of official time for union officials to represent employees, which your question did not address, is a separate matter. But to deal with it as well: this use is also limited by law, e.g., for negotiations and for other representational duties that the parties agree are “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.” Typically the latter agreements are formalized in binding labor-management contracts. Thus, agencies cannot unilaterally modify the parameters under which the bulk of official time is granted. Many bureaucrats would love to hamstring the union in such a way, because they would then be less accountable for their actions. If they did, however, they would be breaking the law.

But I suspect that this answer, which is common knowledge, was not the real reason for the question. Official time is part of a balanced statutory framework under which federal unions operate. Unless accompanied by counterbalancing reforms, the destruction of official time would essentially destroy this balance and thus the effectiveness of federal unions. That seems to be the driver behind the relentless attacks on official time by some in Congress.

The founding fathers knew about the necessity for checks and balances. Without them, concentration of power results in tyranny. Checks and balances are engineered into our political system. But within the federal bureaucracy, the American citizens hired to perform the work represent the only potential check on unbridled executive power. I’m not talking about political appointees or nameless, faceless bureaucrats, but front-line workers who care about their jobs and missions. The only way these men and women can effectively influence events is through their unions. The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute is what empowers them to do so. It put checks and balances into the system.

Federal workers and their unions should be your allies. Your letter itself indicates how powerless Congress can be when it comes to forcing positive changes that lead to greater efficiencies. Congress can authorize programs and fund or defund them. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of administering those programs, though, what is essential to their efficient operation is input from the workers who actually know something about those nuts and bolts. Unions provide employees with the tools they need to address these very real problems – problems that almost always fly below Congressional radar until it is far too late.

If creation of a more efficient and effective federal workforce is your objective, I invite you and your colleagues to work with us. On the other hand, if your objective is to silence the voices of federal employees and their unions, then only the voices of appointees and bureaucrats would remain. These are the very voices, as your letter so carefully documents, that are inadequate. Silencing employees would hamstring your work for more efficient government. It would prevent the productive engagement of citizens who work in government service and are striving toward that same goal. It would hurt taxpayers throughout America who depend on the services the federal workforce provides. Again, I invite you to consider us as allies and work with us for a more efficient and effective federal workforce. The challenges ahead are too daunting for us to do otherwise. We must face them together.


William R. Dougan, National President

National Federation of Federal Employees