News Story

‘Union Time On Taxpayer Dime’: Now Or Never In GOP State House

Republican-controlled Senate has passed a ban twice

A bill that would end taxpayer-funded “release time” for union officials passed the Michigan Senate last week 20-17, with seven Republicans joining all 10 Senate Democrats in opposition.

Release time is a provision of many school and local government union contracts that permits employees who have positions in the local union to do union work that is paid for with taxpayer dollars. Senate Bill 796 would prohibit officials in public schools, local governments and government employee unions from entering into collective bargaining agreements that provide for union release time.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. The Senate also passed a related Knollenberg bill that would prohibit school employees from accruing public pension credits while on union leave time.

“I think the taxpayers are expecting that teachers are teaching in the classroom, not to be doing union business,” Knollenberg said, according to The Detroit News. “They can still do union business. I’m not taking away from that, but the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for this work. It’s that simple.”

In 2015, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported that at least 70 of Michigan’s 548 conventional school districts had some form of union release time. About 40 school districts paid a union employee to spend more than half of their work time doing union business. The cost to taxpayers was at least $3 million.

Critics, including the Mackinac Center, have said that taxpayers should not be funding unions.

A call to action posted on a union Facebook page described the bill as an attack on public employees and unions.

“[The bills] would ban public employee union officials from representing their members and collaborating with school, state, and local government administrators during normal business hours,” the Michigan AFL-CIO said in a call to its backers.

“Republicans want to make it harder for working people to negotiate a fair return on our work, with strong wages, good benefits, and a secure retirement,” the union said. “And these shortsighted bills will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and make state and local government less efficient and less effective.”

Dave Hecker, president of the teachers' union AFT-Michigan, said in an email to union members, "While this is a blatant attack on our unions, legislators must understand that students and schools are also going to suffer if educators aren't able to be involved in important decision making."

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education Reform, which also has jurisdiction over House Bill 6474, sponsored by Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland. Johnson’s bill has provisions that are similar to those in the Senate-passed bill. In 2015, the Senate passed a similar Knollenberg bill, but the House never took it up.

Knollenberg and the Michigan AFL-CIO could not be reached for comment.

Editor's note: This story was updated with a comment from AFT-Michigan.