Public-sector bill will dismantle unions, but they’re not going down without a fight

‘It is a matter of life and death for the people I work with’

By: - March 23, 2023 8:09 pm

Gathering of public sector workers outside the Florida Capitol Senate Chambers on March 23, 2023. Credit: Briana Michel

Dozens of union members from around the state lined the Fourth Floor Rotunda of the Florida Capitol Thursday, game-day style, to welcome lawmakers before a meeting of the full Senate. They raised signs and sang the union anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” opposing what they saw as an impending attack on public workers.   

“They know we’re here,” Florida American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations field director Aaron Carmella said of the senators gathering behind the massive doors to the chamber.

The protest’s object was SB 256, sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, which would strip the rights of public sector workers to join or remain in their unions. It would also bar the automatic deduction of union dues from public employee union members, forcing them to pay their dues separately.

The effort did nothing to prevent the Senate from setting the bill for a final floor vote as early as next week.

Senate Democrats did their best to intervene, but Republicans voted down their amendments, including one that would have extended the stricter rules to firefighters, whose unions tend to support Republicans but that the bill would exempt. Another would have let unions negotiate with government employers on agreements to continue to deduct dues from paychecks.

“You are singling out unions,” protested Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Ingoglia, a Republican from West Central Florida, defended the exclusion of public-safety workers, including police unions, calling them “special workers” who never know if they’ll survive their shifts and don’t have time to worry about making trips to drop off union dues.

“This is a distinction without a difference,” Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat representing part of Palm Beach County, said of the differing treatment between firefighting and police unions and all others.

Union members speak

Many public-sector union members, like Hillsborough County school bus driver of 22 years Jackie McColister, said they can’t afford these measures.

“With the passage of this bill, they will almost definitely eliminate my union,” she said. 

McColister’s union, the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, covers blue-collar, non-instructional workers for the district. This includes custodians, student nutritionists, maintenance, school security officers, and bus drivers like herself.

The bill would decertify unions that don’t count at least 60 percent of their bargaining unit as dues-paying members. McColister said that, as the lowest-paid group in the district, her union runs at about 32 percent. 

“Most of my coworkers, they can’t afford it or they’re at the bottom of the pay scale. So, I pay my $22 a paycheck to protect the rights of everybody. If this bill passes, it could mean my contract – that’s been in force for 36 years – would go away. And then all of those workers, over 4,300 workers, would be at the mercy of the school board in any decision they make.” 

“It is so dangerous to leave our employees with no protection,” she added. “People are elected to office, but they should not be able to undo what an employee goes to work [for] every day and counts on.”

“One move” by the district, such as privatization of bus drivers, could diminish her retirement and cost her her livelihood, McColister said.

‘Life and death’

“It is a matter of life and death for the people I work with,” she said. “So, this is the time to fight.” 

Stephen Simon, a 15-year wastewater facility operator from Tampa, traveled miles to combat what he says is an attack on public workers. 

“We have the freedom to organize and join the union, so we should also have the freedom to decide how we pay our dues,” Smith told the Phoenix. 

Smith said he works alongside his “brothers and sisters” who collectively “keep the city of Tampa running.” Through the pandemic, he and his coworkers provided clean water to the community, he said, vital to the firefighters excused from the bill’s provisions. 

“SB 256 strips public sector workers of their rights, curtailing their freedoms and threatening their right to join together as a union to advocate for fair wages and improved working conditions,” the Florida AFL-CIO said in a written statement. 

According to its website, the Florida AFL-CIO represents over 500 local labor unions, 10 councils and over 1 million union members, retirees, and their families. 

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Briana Michel
Briana Michel

Briana Michel is a multimedia journalist based in Tallahassee, Florida. She is a graduating broadcast journalist student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. During her matriculation at FAMU, she served as the editor-in-chief of the award-winning Journey Magazine, writes for the Famuan and is a producer for FAMU News 20 at Five. She joined the Phoenix team as a reporter intern during the 2023 Florida Legislative Session.