Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Union Business Leave Practices in Large U.S. Municipalities: An Exploratory Study

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Union Business Leave Practices in Large U.S. Municipalities: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt


In early 2016, an auditor for Howard County, Maryland, found that the county sheriff had received nearly 200 hours of "county-subsidized campaign labor" (Waseem, 2016). The auditor suggested this labor came about via the misuse of official time for union business. Some of the time came from employees ineligible for union business leave (UBL), and some came about via improper use of the time by otherwise eligible employees (Waseem, 2016). As both are problematic, the report has the county scrambling to recoup costs and defend its labor practices. Though this is a particularly egregious case, scrutiny of UBL at all levels of government is nothing new. In 2012, the State of New Jersey conducted an investigation into the practice of allowing official time for UBL. It concluded,

Although it is not uncommon, nor is it necessarily improper, for government employers to grant some form of time-off for union work, the Commission found significant and questionable variations in how such leave is authorized, who qualifies for it, who keeps track of it, how it is constituted and who ultimately pays the bill. (State of New Jersey, 2012, p. 9)

Despite the potential for abuse, it is essential to note that UBL can serve an essential role in smoothing labor-management relations, which in turn creates tangible value for the public (Government Accounting Office [GAO], 2014). In spite of this tension, there is almost no systematic information about UBL at the local level. This article serves as a first attempt to provide insight into these practices.

The existence of UBL at the state and local level is an outcome of allowing collective bargaining in the public sector. At the federal level, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) authorized official time, or UBL, for federal employees representing unions ([section] 7131). In all three cases, official time for UBL can be either paid or non-paid and allows public sector employees to perform functions on behalf of a labor group in lieu their normal day job. If union leave is paid, the employee performs certain duties while receiving a paycheck. This leave can include working in a public office or offsite at a union office. In some cases, the employee works for the union full-time. Activities can include time off for negotiations, grievances, attendance at impasse proceedings, participation in labor-management workgroups, facilitation of new workplace initiatives, and participation in local, state, and national union activities (GAO, 2014; Woska, 1988). Partisan political activity is prohibited while on union release time; however, lobbying conducted by federal union officials is allowed as long as it is nonpartisan (Bullock, 2006; Hatch Act of 1939, [section]1502).

The purpose of this exploratory study is to gain a better understanding of official time or UBL practices within local municipalities. We endeavor to answer three research questions:

Question 1: How common are UBL provisions in CBAs between public employee unions and large municipal employers?

Question 2: What specific UBL practices are most common?

Question 3: What drives the variation in the presence of UBL and various UBL practices?

To answer the first and second questions, we engage in a robust descriptive analysis of the UBL practices of the largest 77 municipalities in the United States. We find that UBL is common among local governments, with 72% of employee groups receiving some form of coverage. To answer the second question, we draw on policy innovation and diffusion studies to explore the effects of political motivation, resources, and the external environment on UBL practices in these 77 cities. We find that variation in UBL appears to be driven by political factors and not budgetary resources or the external environment.


Whereas UBL at the local level has received almost no attention, there has been a considerable amount written about the practice at the federal and state level. …

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