How The Conservative Media Cherry-Picked False 'Proof' That Federal Worker Unions Are Robbing Taxpayers

Blog ››› ››› ALAN PYKE

Conservative media are in the middle of a concerted push to claim that a government report confirms their longstanding claim that the federal government wastes tax money on employees whose sole duty is "union work," but ignore key content of the report in question that undermines their misleading narrative.

Fox Business host Stuart Varney made that claim on the February 28 edition of Fox & Friends. But Varney's oversimplified version of the conservative case ignores the content of the report in question, and the more sophisticated version of the case made elsewhere falls apart under minimal scrutiny of the evidence these outlets offer.

During a discussion on federal expenditures for union activity, Varney said that the recipients "worked full-time on union business," and "did not work for the taxpayer." When host Steve Doocy noted that's not how private-sector unions tend to work, Varney replied "Well I don't want to be cynical, Steve, but you've never worked for the federal government, now have you?" Watch:

The report Varney cites from the Office of Personnel and Management directly contradicts his blanket assertion that this money goes to full-time union reps in the introduction. OPM explains that "voluntary membership in Federal sector unions results in considerable reliance by unions on the volunteer work of bargaining unit employees, rather than paid union business agents." In the next paragraph, OPM adds that these hours of pay go to "Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. It allows unions to satisfy their duty of fair representation to members and non-members alike."

Varney's presentation of this misinformation on a flagship Fox News program may prove an inflection point for a piece of misinformation that's percolated through other, smaller conservative media outlets since the OPM report came out in mid-February. On February 19, Fox Nation hyped a Washington Post story that noted some of the contextual information OPM provided. That same day, a Washington Examiner editorial writer highlighted the report. RedState.com put its own write-up on the front page on February 21, beneath an image of brass knuckles atop a pile of cash. On the February 27 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Fox Business' Liz MacDonald made the same set of claims, and numerous other op-eds and blog posts from conservatives have accused the government of this same misspending of taxpayer dollars. Conservative gripes about "official time" expenditures are not new, however, as this 2011 Heritage Foundation testimony on the subject indicates.

Many of these other instances cite Freedom of Information Act requests by the conservative Americans for Limited Government to back their claims. According to ALGFOIAFiles.com, the group requested information from four departments on employees who perform "official time" labor representation work full-time. All four -- the Environmental Protection Agency, National Labor Relations Board, Small Business Administration, and the Department of Transportation -- responded between September and November of 2012. While conservatives like Trey Kovacs, a labor analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, point to the EPA (which found 17 full-time union reps) and DOT (which found 38) responses as proof  of a widespread "problem" whereby taxpayers fund work that does not benefit them, the reality of these four FOIA responses is not nearly so convenient for conservatives.

The data expose this claim for what it is: ideology masquerading as empiricism. As the table below shows, according to the most recent data available the four departments ALG successfully FOIA'd have as many as 0.19 percent of their employees doing union representation work full-time. And those employees do not account for all of the billed "official time" hours in any department, confirming that there are indeed many public servants (in the conservative sense of the phrase) who pitch in to bargaining and other representational efforts as needed.

MMFA

(sources: Fiscal Year 2011 OPM data (most recent available); Americans for Limited Government 2012 FOIA requests; FOIA responses only detail salaries, while OPM's data factor in the cost of employee benefits for "official time" hours billed)

The percentage of billed hours attributable to full-time "official time" workers varies too widely between these departments to extrapolate across the entire federal workforce with any confidence. But the claim that this money goes exclusively or even primarily to full-time union reps is false. Conservatives highlight the raw numbers from EPA and DOT, but ignore the responses from the SBA and NLRB (2 full-timers each). And they ignore the context: DOT has the most full-time union reps on their staff, but with over 39,000 employees they also have the tiniest percentage of their workforce working full-time on behalf of their colleagues' interests.

So much for the empirical underpinnings of Varney's tirade. But what of the notion that spending on "union work" is spiraling out of control?

First, this spending amounts to 0.1 percent of total workforce costs for the government. That's one tenth of one penny out of each dollar the federal government spends on its workers in salaries and benefits. Second, OPM historical data show that the growth rate for "official time" jumped up into positive territory in 2007, and has remained largely steady since:

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Consistent data before 2004 are unavailable. And that 2007 spike? In 2005, OPM noted that improved systems for tracking "official time" would be fully online by 2007.

Third, Varney (and some, but not all, of the other conservatives cited above) ignore a key piece of OPM's own explanation of the increase: "labor-management forums" across departments "to help find more effective and lower cost ways to deliver government services." The Obama administration borrowed that strategy from the private sector, as OPM explains: "The forums also mirror private-sector initiatives in recent years to encourage strong labor-management relationships to drive better productivity and industry competitiveness."

The notion of union representatives sitting down with management to build consensus on how to make an organization work more efficiently should appeal to conservatives. And it is far from the only way in which federal unions exemplify the kind of cooperative and constrained labor behavior conservatives say they want from private-sector unions.

As OPM explains, union representation is far more restricted for federal workers than it typically is in the private sector. Dues are not compulsory, and the union must still represent non-dues-paying workers in bargaining and in disputes. Striking is illegal. Pay and benefits are usually set by law, not in bargaining, and other conditions of employment "are taken off the bargaining table by a broad management rights provision" in the law. "Official time," as OPM calls these hours, cannot be billed for things like union elections or "for any other purpose not tied directly to representation of bargaining unit employees in matters concerning conditions of employment."

All of this information is in the introduction to the 2011 statistics that underlie Varney's claims.

In short, despite a broad effort to mislead the public on the extent, nature, and cost of federal union activity, conservatives do not have the facts on their side. With its empirical and legal supports kicked out from beneath it, the conservative effort is a plainly ideological cherrypicking to further the case that "labor rights" are about greed and sloth.

It is unremarkable when a conservative "think tank" presents rightist ideology on labor as fact. But when media repeat that presentation with such a flagrant disinterest in checking the facts, they become propagandists. If Varney or MacDonald or the Examiner editorialists treated the OPM report and ALG FOIAs with even a little bit of skepticism, they might learn that federal unions are actually demonstrating the kind of moderacy the right claims to want from private-sector workers.

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