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Government employers shouldn't pay union officials

You could say New Jersey governments are in bed with the unions. But it would be more accurate to say they're in a long, happy, and deeply committed marriage.

Over the past five years, a sample of New Jersey governments and school districts paid for more than $30 million in salary and benefits for employees doing union work, the State Commission of Investigation reported last week. And this was a small sample: The agency examined only about a fifth of the state's school districts and 3 percent of its municipalities.

Vague state laws and generous, often obscure contract provisions allow such de facto union officials to remain on paid leave from their nominal government jobs for years or even decades.

Camden alone paid $2.3 million over five years to three police officers and three firefighters engaged in union work full-time, the SCI found — an astounding extravagance in a city where funds and emergency personnel should be precious.

On the other hand, just think of all the money these governments are saving the unions. That way, they can spend more of their dues on contributions to politicians — the kind who gratefully approve contracts that pay government wages for union work.

It's easy to beat up on the unions for this, but also somewhat beside the point. As the SCI report notes, "union representatives, first and foremost, are in the business of promoting the interests of private entities and their dues-paying members, not those of the taxpayers." That's why they shouldn't be paid public money. But it's also why it's not very surprising when they take it.

Sure, we can hope unions will refuse improper government giveaways on principle, but it would probably be a vain hope. Union officials are paid — even if it is by wayward governments — to push the interests of a union and its membership, and that's what most of them do.

The more important failure here is by elected and appointed government officials. They passed the laws and approved the contracts that made this possible. And it's their job, not the unions', to represent us.