Goldwater Institute Fights ‘Release Time’ Practice in Phoenix to Prevent Forced Worker Financing of Union Activities

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute (GI) is preparing another fight in court against a practice called “release time” to protect non-union government workers from having their compensation used to fund union activities.

“The City of Phoenix should not force its employees to forfeit their constitutional rights by funding the political speech of government labor unions as a condition of employment. We’re urging the court to end this unlawful cronyism and respect Arizona law,” said GI Vice-President for Litigation Jon Riches in a statement emailed to The Arizona Sun Times.

The practice of “release time” involving government employees can take many forms, but most often allows full-time employees on the payroll to work for a private union instead of the public. This can look like a full-time release where employees who work for the union full-time will still receiving a paycheck from the government or a more hybrid approach where unions only have a certain amount of time with each worker.

These employees’ activities for the unions often differ from their original roles. Union work often includes increasing union members, engaging in political activities, lobbying the government, and negotiating for higher wages and benefits, among other tasks. According to the GI, the practice of release time is not specific to Arizona but practiced all over the country on every level of the federal government. The GI said release time costs the U.S. around one billion dollars annually.

In 2019, the City of Phoenix (COP) entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 2384, Field Unit II (AFSCME), a union for COP electricians, mechanics, security guards, and others. The agreement provided the union with four full-time release positions from the city, a yearly bank of 3,183 release hours to be used by union representatives, and $14,000 pre-year for union members to attend schools, conferences, and other events.

The issue comes into play when these “released” employees are paid. Payment for the released employees was given as part of a “total compensation.” All employees bound by the MOU, whether they are part of the union or not, have money from their salary taken to give to the released employees.

Here is where the GI’s lawsuit came in. City employees Mark Gilmore and Mark Harder are subject to the MOU as a condition of their employment but objected to having a portion of their compensation directed toward the union.

The GI argued that COP violated Gilmore and Harder’s First Amendment rights when the COP used their compensation to fund the union’s activities. In the 2017 Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, the court decided that the government could not take money from nonconsenting employees to support a public sector labor union and its actions, such as political advocacy. Moreover, Article XXV of the Arizona Constitution prohibits forced union membership and forcing non-union employees to pay any financial compensation to unions. Neither Gilmore nor Harder are members, so the GI argues that none of their compensation should be used to fund any union activities.

The GI initially filed this lawsuit against Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego on October 8, 2019, in the Maricopa County Superior Court. Over three years later, the case is ongoing. On Wednesday, the GI will make another oral argument for this case in the Arizona Court of Appeals.

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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Jon Riches” by Goldwater Institute. Background Photo “Wood Workers” by Helena Lopes.


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