Could this be the year that FL Republicans pass legislation wounding public sector unions?
School teachers protest for higher wages at a Miami-Dade School Board meeting. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
For more than a decade, Florida Republicans have targeted public employee unions with proposed changes that would make them weaker in what is already a “right-to-work” state.
The difference this year is that Gov. Ron DeSantis is actively looking to get a number of legislative accomplishments under his belt as he begins what is considered to be a likely bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
That’s drawing concerns in the organized labor community in Florida that this year in the Legislature the changes could actually translate into law.
Take for instance SB 256 from state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, who represents West Central Florida counties. The measure would prevent public-employee union members from having dues automatically deducted from their paychecks, with members instead having to separately pay dues.
The bill also would make unions vulnerable to being decertified if they don’t count at least 60 percent of their bargaining unit as dues-paying members. That provision builds off of a 2018 state law that decertifies teacher unions if they don’t get 50 percent of their bargaining unit as dues paying members.
Ingoglia told the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee Thursday that he chose 60 percent as the minimum number of dues paying members to keep a union viable, saying that “in order to represent the full bargaining unit there should be as much participation as possible.” If they drop below that, they would be forced to petition the Public Employee Relations Commission for recertification.
The measure would exempt unions representing police, firefighters and corrections officers.
Back in January, DeSantis announced his support for increasing the threshold for teacher unions to 60 percent as part of his “Teacher Bill of Rights” agenda, which included measures such as: Requiring school unions to annually notify members of the cost of membership; prohibiting the distribution of union materials at the workplace; prohibiting union work while on the clock for their taxpayer funded job, and stating that union officials cannot be paid more than the highest paid union member.
“We want more transparency into how school unions operate, and we are going to fight against school union haggling that holds teachers and their salary increases hostage,” DeSantis said at the time in Jacksonville. “Partisan groups should not be given special privileges.”
Rich Templin, the director of politics and public policy with the Florida AFL-CIO, has been advocating for labor issues in Tallahassee for years. He says he’s never seen so much major legislation move through the Legislature in just the first two weeks of the session, and he says that putting a hurt on public sector unions is part of DeSantis’ ambitious agenda.
“The governor laid out a bunch of check boxes, right?” Templin told the Phoenix as the nearly three-hour hearing on the Senate bill took place Thursday. “Most of those boxes are now checked in a week and a half. The rapidity of everything happening this year – I’ve been here for two decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it. So of course we’re concerned.”
Dozens upon dozens of schoolteachers and other members of public employee unions testified at the committee meeting, urging the GOP-controlled committee to vote down the measure.
“In the free state of Florida, employees should be free to decide how they direct their paychecks and spend the money that they have earned, said Stephanie Kunkel with the Florida Education Association, which has over 150,000 members. “Employees currently can direct their paychecks for payroll deduction to pay for health insurance premiums for life insurance policies, make charitable contributions, and even pay for gym memberships and sporting tickets. Why are we removing one payroll slot and prohibiting employees to direct their paychecks to pay for their union dues in the same way?”
“I was raised on conservative principles of freedom and small government, and this bill is the opposite of those principles,” said Elizabeth Rasmussen, who said she taught high school social studies in Polk County for the past 15 years. “The union is not a bunch of party bosses in a dark room. This is not Tammany Hall. I am the union.”
Templin says that there is “a sizable amount” of public sector unions who currently have less than 60% dues paying members, though he couldn’t give a specific figure.
According to the Senate bill analysis, for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, only one bargaining unit reported less than 50 percent dues paying membership. The analysis reports that the employee organization petitioned for recertification and was approved by over 92 percent of the employees voting in the recertification election.
Florida is one of 27 “right to work” states around the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s defined as giving workers a choice when it comes to union membership – labor unions still operate in those states, but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job.
There are 414,000 workers in a union in Florida, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In comparison, Texas has 518,000 workers in unions; Ohio, 641,000 workers in unions; California with the most workers in unions, at about 2.6 million and New York, with the second most workers in unions, at about 1.6 million.
Ingoglia’s bill passed in Thursday’s committee meeting and now goes to the full Senate floor for a vote.
The House version, HB 1445, passed as well, in the Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee on Thursday. It now goes to the House State Affairs Committee.
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