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FEDERAL UNION WINS RULING ON USE OF TAXPAYER FUNDS "OFFICIAL TIME" PERMITTED FOR LOBBING CONGRESS

By Stephen Barr.

Washington Post, February 18, 1997.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority has ruled that taxpayer dollars can be used by federal unions to lobby members of Congress. The ruling resolved a grievance brought by a union representative in Memphis who contended that he should receive his pay and not have to use his vacation time when he traveled here for his union's "Lobby Week" activities, which included meetings with members of Congress.

The FLRA upheld the decision of an arbitrator, who said the union representative had a right to use "official time" under his agency collective bargaining agreement to lobby on such issues as federal pay and benefits, government downsizing, health care and civil service reform.

The ruling will likely serve as a guide for local unions that want to step up their lobbying activities or renegotiate their agency bargaining agreements. It comes at a point when official time is under attack by some congressional Republicans, who argue that unions, not taxpayers, should pay for union activities.

Unions defend official time, noting that federal law requires unions to represent all employees covered by bargaining agreements, not just those who pay union dues.

Under official time, federal employees may be authorized paid time off from their assigned duties for union activities such as collective bargaining, handling employee grievances and participating in meetings with agency managers.

In the House, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) has asked the General Accounting Office to review official time at the government's 30 largest agencies. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) has introduced a bill to stop trust fund money at the Social Security Administration and the Health and Human Services Department from being spent on union activities.

The ruling on official time, dated Jan. 31, involved the Army Corps of Engineers and Clark D. King, a representative of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). In December 1993, King asked for official time to come to Washington, the Corps objected and the dispute went to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled in favor of King in early 1995, but the Corps appealed the case to the FLRA.

"The fact that Congress expressly authorized official time for matters covered by the statute {the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act} persuades us that Congress expressly authorized the use of appropriated funds for lobbying activities," the FLRA said. Clinton Wolcott, NFFE general counsel, called the ruling "significant." The FLRA opinion, he said, "makes it absolutely clear that it is proper for union representatives to represent employees before Congress. It'll encourage more lobbying by union representatives, and that's a good thing for employees."

Joshua F. Bowers, a former NFFE attorney who filed the case, said, "This is a tremendously important decision because Congress needs to know the problems of employees." Now, he said, federal workers, like many private sector employees, can talk directly to their "top management," in this case, Congress.

Wolcott said the ruling "clarifies a lot of issues that had not been directly addressed, and it affirms lobbying based on general language in a contract."

Clinton administration officials played down the significance of the ruling, saying it builds on previous cases that date to the Reagan era. In 1983, for example, the authority said union officials responsible for legislative affairs had the right to place calls to members of Congress to discuss agency appropriations.

But officials also noted that previous opinions had not addressed the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by federal workers. In this case, the FLRA found that "Lobby Week" did not violate the Hatch Act or criminal laws against using federal funds to influence Congress.

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