FL teachers’ unions sue over Gov. DeSantis for takeover of dues-paying process

‘The governor is using this legislation to retaliate against his critics,’ FEA leader says

By: - May 10, 2023 2:21 pm
high school classroom, school, education

Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

Teachers’ unions have filed a federal lawsuit targeting a new Florida law that bars public employee unions from collecting dues via payroll deductions, calling it “a naked effort to curtail the constitutional rights of those public unions that have crossed Gov. DeSantis.”

The unions filed their complaint Tuesday — the day Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law — in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

The 36-page document argues that the law splits public-sector units into two, unequal classes: “favored unions” that support the governor’s policies, including police, firefighters, and corrections officers; and “disfavored unions,” such as the teachers, that have resisted DeSantis’s effort to limit classroom discussions of LGBTQ+ people and American history, among other conflicts.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed education-related legislation on May 9, 2023, in Miami. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook

“SB 256 [the law at issue] is a naked effort to curtail the constitutional rights of those public unions that have crossed Gov. DeSantis. Gov. DeSantis has attacked education-employee unions in particular as ‘pernicious’ and ‘partisan.’ And in promoting SB 256, Gov. DeSantis made clear that the purpose of the ban on disfavored unions’ collection of voluntary membership dues via employee-authorized payroll deductions was ‘to make sure the school unions are not getting any of that money,’” according to the lawsuit.

The complaint asserts violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments and the U.S. Constitution’s contracts clause, which bars states from “impairing the obligation of contracts” — in this instance, unions’ collective bargaining agreements with school districts.

The Walt Disney Co. raised similar complaints in its own federal challenge to the state’s closing of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which allowed the company to run its own government in Central Florida, after the company’s president criticized DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

‘Unconstitutional on its face’

The law also provides for the decertification of unions that fail to attract 60% membership within bargaining units.

“This law is unconstitutional on its face, irrespective of any bad motive on the part of the governor. However, we do believe there are bad motives,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said during a Zoom news conference.

“The governor is using this legislation to retaliate against his critics — very similar to what we’ve seen in the attacks on Disney, as well. The law violates our right to free speech and to association under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as equal-protection laws under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” he continued.

Andrew Spar, president, Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA

“It further diminishes our contractual rights by impeding valid, biding, active contracts with our universities and with our public school districts across the state of Florida that have been bargained for and secured under collective bargaining agreements.”

The named plaintiffs are the Alachua County Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida and its University of Florida branch, and the Florida Education Association. Named as defendants are Donald Rubottom, chairman of the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, and board members Jeff Aaron and Michael Sasso. The commission oversees employee relations for the state.

The right to collective bargaining has been key to Florida’s high rankings for its public schools, colleges, and universities, said Paul Ortiz of United Faculty of Florida, and eliminating it will undermine those gains.

“Without my collective bargaining agreement, I cannot offer my students the same level of education and training and experience as my peers and colleagues up North. Our students in Florida deserve to have an equal chance when they graduate from the high schools and from the colleges and universities to compete successfully in the job market — to compete for those precious spots in law school and medical school if they so choose to go in that direction,” Ortiz said.

Additional litigation possible

“We have not ruled out a state cause of action at this point,” Spar said, nor adding other public-sector unions to the federal action. The teachers reached out to unions representing police, firefighters, and corrections officers for support but didn’t get it.

“I think this is an attempt by the governor to divide” the labor movement, he said.

Randi Weingarten
Randi Weingarten. Source: Wikipedia

“It is clear as day that what Ron DeSantis is doing is impeding freedom. And worse is that he’s acting more like a dictator in Hungary or in Cuba, pretending that he’s not. That’s propaganda,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, zooming into the call from Ukraine.

“If we don’t have a seat at the table, we will be on the menu,” said Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua union local.

“This was the governor’s legislative session. This was about promoting the governor’s political ambition, putting the governor’s political ambition ahead of the workers in the state of Florida, the families in the state of Florida, and the students in the state of Florida,” Spar said.

DeSantis said the new law would save teachers money they’d otherwise pay in dues. Spar insisted that by destroying collective bargaining, it in fact would saddle teachers with contracts imposed by their school districts. In any event, dues are entirely voluntary — payroll deduction is just the cleanest way to contribute them, Spar added.

Additionally, the law’s requirements that bargaining units submit to audits could units in small counties that can’t afford a five-digit audit fee, Spar said. Moreover, the state will have to bulk up staffing in the employment commission.

Transferring the membership application process from unions to the state may be unprecedented in the United States, said Leon Dayan, of the Washington labor-oriented law firm Bredhoff & Kaiser. This amounts to a “government takeover of a private association and its communication with its own members,” he said.

Another problem for the law is that it abrogates existing contracts governing payroll deductions. “There is precedent against laws like this,” Dayan said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.