Biden administration covering up taxpayer-funded union activities in the federal workforce

Biden administration covering up taxpayer-funded union activities in the federal workforce

Biden administration covering up taxpayer-funded union activities in the federal workforce

The Biden administration’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has taken down a page on its website that served as a repository of information about “official time” use in the federal government for over 10 years, Internet records show.

“Official time” — also known as taxpayer-funded union time — refers to the practice of federal employees engaging in union activities instead of their assigned duties while on the clock and without loss of pay.

Federal employees who are also union officers have been granted access to certain amounts of official time since Congress extended collective bargaining to the federal workforce with passage of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute in 1978.

However, since its inception, official time has generated significant controversy.

Unions and Democrat administrations generally seek to maximize official time, since shifting the costs of union administration to taxpayers frees up union treasuries to increase engagement in politics, lobbying and other ideological activities that advance progressive interests. Republican administrations are generally more skeptical of official time, viewing it as an unjustified giveaway to unions at taxpayers’ expense.

In May 2018, President Trump issued Executive Order 13837 which, among other things, sought to regulate and limit the amount of official time used across the federal workforce to the extent permitted by law. Conversely, repealing E.O. 13837 via E.O. 14003 was one of President Biden’s first acts after taking office.

Despite differing views on the policy’s merits, recent presidential administrations of both parties have made regular attempts to at least measure the use of official time across the federal workforce.

Since the 1970s, the handful of attempts by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to measure official time use and associated costs were hampered by the failure of many federal agencies to diligently track official time use by their employees.

In 1979, the GAO concluded that “no one knows how much official time is authorized for Federal employees” because of “widespread failure” to keep adequate records.

In congressional testimony from 1996, a GAO official reported that “[T]he extent to which federal taxpayers subsidize the activities of federal employee unions… cannot be answered with any precision.”

After being directed to do so by Congress, OPM issued its first report on official time use during the Clinton administration in 1998. Since then, OPM has generally issued additional reports every year or so. Seven reports were issued during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, five during the eight years of the Obama administration, and two during the four years of the Trump administration.

To date, OPM has yet to produce an updated official time report during the Biden administration, marking the longest stretch without such a report since 1998-2002.

Since at least 2013, OPM has maintained a page on its website explaining official time and housing its historic reports on official time use. However, visitors to the page now receive a 404 error message and, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, the page was taken down sometime after July 13, 2023.

The 2019 report remains hosted on OPM’s website, but is accessible only through search engines.

In response to an inquiry from the Dallas Express on Aug. 2, a spokesperson for OPM attributed the missing page to an ongoing “modernization of our site” during which “the page was unpublished… to be reorganized.”

More than three months later, however, there is no indication OPM’s website has been or is in the process of being overhauled in any major way. To this date, not only does the official time page remain nonfunctional, but most links to prior OPM pages with past official time reports and explanations have also been taken down.

Instead, on or around July 29, 2023 — according to the Internet Archive — OPM launched a new “Worker Empowerment” webpage proclaiming the virtues of labor unions and stating the administration’s “[dedication] to supporting policies, practices, and programs that promote worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.”

While the page makes no mention of taxpayer-funded union time, it does link to: (1) the report of President Biden’s White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment containing 15 recommendations for ways the administration could increase unionization of the federal workforce; and (2) a YouTube video of Vice President Kamala Harris at a virtual worker roundtable from 2022.

In all likelihood, the use of official time has increased notably since the last OPM report was issued. In 2019 — the first year following Trump’s executive order tamping down on official time use — OPM estimated federal employees spent at least 2.6 million hours on taxpayer-funded union time. While this amounted to a 28 percent decline from 2016, it still cost taxpayers about $135 million.

Since then, the Biden administration has not only removed Trump’s restrictions, but actively worked to increase both official time use and the number of unionized federal workers. Earlier this year, the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment “proudly announced” that the number of unionized federal workers had increased by 20 percent, or 80,000.

While increased union membership merits a White House press release, perhaps the administration is less enthusiastic about touting how taxpayers are picking up the growing tab for federal union operations.  

As long as taxpayers are going to be required by law to continue to pay the salaries of federal employees engaged in union business, the least the federal government can do is measure and publish the extent and associated costs of official time so policymakers and American voters can evaluate the practice for themselves. Even for the most “pro-union administration in history,” that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

OPM should immediately re-post its past official time reports on its website and commission an up-to-date study of official time use across federal agencies. Should OPM fail to do so, Congress should act decisively — whether through oversight, appropriations, or old-fashioned lawmaking — to hold OPM accountable for its lack of transparency and to re-evaluate the merits of official time.

Director of Research and Government Affairs
As the Freedom Foundation’s Director of Research and Government Affairs, Maxford Nelsen leads the team working to advance the Freedom Foundation’s mission through strategic research, public policy advocacy, and labor relations. Max regularly testifies on labor issues before legislative bodies and his research has formed the basis of several briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Max’s work has been published in local newspapers around the country and in national outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, National Review, and the American Spectator. His work on labor policy issues has been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, Fox News, and PBS News Hour. He is a frequent guest on local radio stations like 770 KTTH and 570 KVI. From 2019-21, Max was a presidential appointee to the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves contract negotiation disputes between federal agencies and labor unions. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2013, Max worked for and the Washington Policy Center and interned with the Heritage Foundation. Max holds a labor relations certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. A Washington native, he lives in Olympia with his wife and sons.