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