House bill adds new membership requirements for public unions; critics call it ‘union-busting’

By: - January 28, 2020 7:00 am
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Union leaders have denounced a vote in the Florida House to divert $1 billion in online sales taxes to benefit their employers Credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Teachers, police officers, and other public workers will face a new bureaucratic hurdle if they want to remain members of a public-employee union under a bill advancing in the Florida House.

The legislation (HB 1) requires public union workers to submit a signed “membership authorization form” each year if they want to remain in the union and have a portion of their salaries deducted as membership dues.

Under existing law, public workers have to authorize the deduction of the union dues only once, with the ability to leave the union with a 30-day notice to their employer and the union.

Opponents say the bill is another attempt by the Republican-led House to undermine union representation in the state by creating cumbersome regulations for union members.

“I think this bill is really about one thing and one thing only. It’s about union busting, and there’s really no other more polite way to characterize it,” said Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, who opposes the legislation.

“This bill is not happening in a vacuum. It’s not just happening in Florida. This is part of a concerted effort, a national effort by one organization or handful of organizations advancing an agenda to basically try to erode union membership,” Fernandez said. “They do that by erecting barriers to membership under the guise of worker protection.”

Rep. James Grant, the Tampa Republican who is sponsoring the legislation, insisted the changes are needed to prevent what he says are “underhanded or disingenuous” practices by some of the unions that represent government employees.

“We have found ample evidence of some who have done some pretty, at least in this bill sponsor’s opinion, pretty egregious things,” Grant told the House Oversight, Transparency, and Public Management subcommittee last week.

Grant cited a form from an Orange County teachers’ union that asked a member to identify their party membership as part of the process of terminating their union membership.

“It is patently offensive for a labor union to be taking direct deposits and holding a member of that union effectively hostage until that person tells them what party they’re affiliated with. These are labor unions, not political organizations,” Grant said.

But Ron Meyer, a lawyer representing the Florida Education Association, the state’s major teachers union, said he reviewed the opt-out form for Orange County union members and it did not have any requirement to identify party affiliation.

“This bill isn’t the result of problems in Florida. This is a cookie-cutter piece of legislation sponsored by the Mackinac Institute, a well-known, anti-union operation out of Michigan that has a distaste for unions, public-sector unions,” Meyer said. “My point is, this is a problem that doesn’t exist, and this bill is just a bad idea.”

Grant said the assertion that the legislation was written by Mackinac was “patently untrue.”

Still, Vincent Vernuccio, who works for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, testified in favor of the legislation.

“This bill simply protects public employees in Florida. It confirms that they want to be members of the union and they want to pay the union. It ensures that public employers have the necessary information to deduct dues from their paychecks,” Vernuccio said.

The bill would require teachers, correctional officers, police officers, state workers, and other public-sector union members to sign a form each year authorizing deduction of union dues from their pay. The form states, in part, that Florida “is a right to work state and union membership is not required as a condition of employment.”

Florida has long been a “right to work” state, meaning workers have the right to refuse to join a union. But workers also have a constitutional right to union representation in a collective-bargaining process that sets the terms of their wages and other job conditions.

Opponents of the bill argue that requiring tens of thousands of public union workers across the state to submit the annual forms could become a serious administrative burden.

“I represent a union of about 142,000 members,” said Meyer, the FEA attorney. “You can imagine the burden that that’s going to be placed upon school districts throughout this state if every year they have to verify 142,000 dues-paying members want to stay as dues-paying members.”

This is not the first attempt by the Republican-led Legislature to add regulations to public-employee union membership.

In 2018, the Legislature passed a law requiring teachers unions to maintain membership of at least 50 percent of a school district’s staff or risk disbandment. If the unions are decertified, they no longer can bargain collectively for teachers in the district. The FEA is challenging the law in court.

Grant’s bill advanced out of the House oversight subcommittee last week on a 9-5 vote, with opposition from the Democratic members. Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican, also opposed the bill.

The legislation could face more resistance, since unlike the 2018 law aimed at teachers unions, the bill also targets unions representing police, firefighters, and other law enforcement groups, which traditionally have had more support among Republican lawmakers.

The measure, which only had two committee assignments in House, next moves to the State Affairs Committee.

A similar measure (SB 804), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, has yet to be heard in a Senate committee.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.