A leaner union contract had been imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was not happy about it.
Things had not gone well for NATCA under Republican President George W. Bush. Its perk-filled contract, negotiated in 1998 when Bill Clinton was in the White House, expired in 2003.
After three years of unsuccessful haggling, the FAA in 2006 exercised its ability to impose a new contract on the union, which stripped away many lucrative benefits. It was supposed to be in place until 2012.
Everything changed when President Obama took office in 2009. The union-friendly Democrat had been endorsed by NATCA during his campaign, and, as a senator, had sponsored a bill to force the FAA into binding arbitration over its impasse with the union.
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Today: Union-friendly politicians reap the rewards for protecting official time
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Then there was the union money. Lots of it.
Obama and other Democrats raised more than $61.3 million from labor-controlled political action committees in the 2008 election, including about $15 million from PACs run by government-sector unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Little of that went directly to Obama, but 92 percent of union contributions went to Democrats.
Less than six months after Obama was sworn in and almost three years before the NATCA contract was supposed to expire, negotiations were reopened, the generous perks for the union were restored and a new agreement was approved.
The new deal added at least $669 million to the cost of the contract, according to agency estimates. Among the changes was more official time for the union.
Political muscle paid off for NATCA, as it often pays off for other federal employee unions. And that political muscle is built with official time, a policy that pays federal employees to do union work.
Unions don’t have to pay salaries or benefits to most of the top officers who staff locals and national councils. Taxpayers do that with official time, which frees dues revenue for funding political activity.
Official time cost taxpayers almost $155.6 million in salaries and benefits paid to union officials who spent 3.4 million hours away from their government jobs in fiscal 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available.
“It clearly is a subsidy for the unions, and that has advantaged Democrats,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., sponsor of a bill to force unions to pay for official time.
The Democrats continued to fare well with public employee unions in 2012. They funneled $16.5 million to political campaigns that year, 92 percent of which went to Democrats.
A review of four of the biggest federal unions and their local affiliates shows they spend about $12.6 million a year on political activity, which can include direct payments for lobbying and certain types of political action committees, as well as on-the-ground organizing, efforts to get voters to the polls and political education campaigns that can favor certain candidates.
Since different locals file on different dates for different time periods, the Washington Examiner reviewed only their most recent annual reports for the national headquarters and all locals, most of which covered 2012.
The American Federation of Government Employees is the biggest federal employee union, and most prolific political spender. AFGE spent more than $7.6 million on politics in one year. NATCA ranks second at $2.6 million.
The other two unions reviewed are the National Treasury Employees Union, which spent about $2 million on politics, and the National Association of Government Employees, which spent about $500,000.
No government report shows how much federal time or money went to individual unions. But for those willing to dig deeply into federal records, there are clues as to how dependent the employee unions are on official time.
The exclusive representative of IRS employees is NTEU, which had total income from member dues and other sources of $43.2 million, including locals.
Official time use by federal agencies
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Note: These agencies have supplied some or all of the data requested either in databases or through PDF files that had to be converted and cleaned by the Washington Examiner.
NTEU represents thousands of other federal employees, and takes thousands of official-time hours outside of the IRS.
Union officials insist member dues are not used for political campaigns, which is technically correct.
Although most big federal unions have their own PACs, they cannot directly contribute money raised from dues. That money comes from individual donors.
“We'd get into big trouble with the Department of Labor, and probably the Republicans would try to scalp us,” said William Wetmore, a lawyer in the Department of Veterans Affairs, who is released full-time to work for his AFGE-affiliated union.
“Clearly they are insinuating that’s what's occurring. I say at the very least they are woefully uninformed,” Wetmore said.
Wetmore is the highest-paid VA employee on full-time union release.
Although unions cannot contribute directly to their own PACs, top union officials decide how the money is spent. And virtually all of it is spent on Democrats.
The biggest spender in the 2012 election was NATCA PAC, which spent $5.9 million in the two-year cycle, according to CRP.
That includes almost $1.7 million donated to federal candidates, 63 percent of which went to Democrats and 37 percent to Republicans.
NATCA PAC also gave $1.25 million to Priorities USA Action, an Obama-connected political committee bankrolled heavily by unions.
AFGE PAC funneled $805,120 to individual campaigns during the 2012 election cycle, 97 percent of which went to Democrats, according to CRP. Another $65,000 went to the Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees.
The NTEU PAC spent $580,412 on congressional candidates in the 2012 cycle, with 94 percent of its contributions going to Democrats. It also gave a combined $62,500 to the Democratic congressional and senatorial committees, and none to the Republican counterparts.
Dues money makes its way into political campaigns by being channeled through independent expenditure committees.
Sometimes called super PACs, these committees can raise unlimited amounts of money from unions, corporations and individuals.
Although they cannot donate directly to a candidate, they can run campaigns touting favored candidates and attacking opponents.
Priorities USA is a super PAC. So is The Voices of AFGE, which in 2012 spent $300,000 in independent campaign expenditures, all favoring Democrats, according to CRP.
AFGE's national headquarters and more than two dozen locals directly contributed about $240,746 to the AFGE super PAC. The biggest contributor was AFGE SPAN, an independent committee financed directly by the union.
Another super PAC getting big checks from federal employee unions is the AFL-CIO Workers Voices PAC, which spent $21.7 million in 2012, including $6.3 million in independent expenditures for or against federal candidates. Of that, $3.3 million favored Democrats and $3.1 million opposed Republicans.
Obama was the biggest beneficiary, with $1.4 million spent advocating his re-election and a nearly identical amount spent urging the defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to CRP.
Among the top contributors to the AFL-CIO committee were AFGE, which gave $379,121, and NATCA, which gave $215,667.
“Union money is certainly entering the political system in ways that are closely associated, if not directly connected to the candidates,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics.
“They can’t spend it directly supporting a candidate by giving them money. But they can spend it on running advertisements that are pro or against candidates. The money can come directly from the union’s treasury. That’s probably the most obvious way the money can enter the system.”