How To Reverse The Fairfax $5.8M Union Giveaway

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A new report says critics may have the law on their side against the practice of Fairfax County, Va. public sector employees doing union work instead of their actual jobs.

The policy allows 10 designated public sector unions 240 taxpayer-funded hours each of political lobbying with an additional 240 hours each for conventions, training and meetings. Some other activities have no limits. The policy is often referred to as release time on the local level. The Competitive Enterprise Institute argues in its Tuesday report, “A Remedy for Fairfax County’s Taxpayer Giveaway to Unions,” that the county should end the practice completely.

“Use of taxpayer funds should be reserved for purely public purposes, not the private benefit of an individual, corporation, or association,” the report notes. “Fortunately, a provision in Virginia’s constitution, known as the ‘Gift Clause,’ bans government subsidies that primarily benefit private entities.”

All unions, including in the public sector, are technically private organizations. Though they get special privileges under the law, the report asserts the state gift clause should still apply. The policy being at odds with state law could subject it to lawsuits as a possible means to rein it in. The lawsuit would just have to be brought by a resident in the county.

“Overall, activity performed on release time serves the interests of unions,” the report continues. “Unions, not taxpayers, should incur those costs, which FCPS has been paying for since 1986, despite the constitutional restriction on granting public aid to private entities.”

The no gift clause policy means no state agency or subdivision can contribute to a private organization unless it is clear there will be a direct benefit to the public. Most states have similar policies as a means of preventing political favoritism and questionable dealings with public funds.

The policy was first uncovered in September by the Center on National Labor Policy (CNLP) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. A previous report by CNLP also questioned the legality of the policy against state law. It was defeated statewide in a case out of Arizona.

“Release time has been successfully challenged and deemed an unconstitutional public expenditure under Arizona’s gift clause,” the report states. “In 2011, the Phoenix – based Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of taxpayer plaintiffs against the release time provisions in the contract between the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA).”

The report also notes bad record keeping may make it impossible to actually determine how much funds are spent on the policy. The county spent $5.8 million alone just to hire substitutes for teachers participating in the practice. While performing union work, public employees get the same taxpayer-funded pay and benefits as if they were doing their normal duties.

The county, though, has countered criticism. It has since noted that public officials participate in a number of activities outside their normal duties without having to use personal leave time. Many of the activities don’t involve the union like volunteering and serving on certain county boards.

Fairfax County employees that work for the police, library, park authority, sheriff office and town hall have all used the policy. The designated unions include the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000, AFSCME and Fairfax County Government Employees Union, among others.

When federal agencies engage in the policy, it is known as official time. The practice may have also played a major role in the recent scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A 2014 report from the Capital Research Center found that many veterans may have died as a result of healthcare officials doing union work instead of their job.

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