Florida public employees get mailers rife with disinformation about the state’s new union bill

The anti-union mailers were sent by an out-of-state think tank in response to Florida’s newly passed SB 256

click to enlarge Flyer created by the Freedom Foundation, a billionaire-backed nonprofit, targeting public employees affected by a new law affecting public sector unions. - John T. Fox/@johntfox on Twitter
John T. Fox/@johntfox on Twitter
Flyer created by the Freedom Foundation, a billionaire-backed nonprofit, targeting public employees affected by a new law affecting public sector unions.

A recent political mailer in Florida tied to an out-of-state think tank is spreading what union leaders describe as “disinformation” surrounding a new union law approved by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month.

The mailer, produced by the Freedom Foundation — a conservative, billionaire-backed nonprofit — began making the rounds on Twitter this weekend, showing a bulleted list of items regarding the new law (SB 256).

“What does SB 256 really mean for you?” one section reads.

A bigger paycheck, it says. The decision to join or to not join a union (as if workers hadn't had that choice already).

“Don’t be tricked into giving the union your bank account or credit card number,” the mailer reads on one side, with, “Don’t let the union mislead you” printed on the other.

A lobbyist for the Freedom Foundation, Russell "Rusty" Brown, confirmed to Orlando Weekly that the target of this mailer campaign — dubbed “Union Oversight” — is all of Florida’s public employees, at least a third of whom stand to be affected by the new law.

It's meant to offer transparency, Brown said. To inform.

But the president of Florida’s statewide teachers union, representing over 150,000 school staff, blasted the campaign. “I think the flyer is full of misinformation,” Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar told Orlando Weekly.

It’s an insult to teachers, professors and other employees in Florida, he said, “and it’s not going to work.”

Recycling common anti-union talking points, the green and orange mailer warns recipients against allowing themselves to be misled by labor unions, which, in Florida, have gone into overdrive in recent months to recruit new members ahead of SB 256’s implementation.

The new law, years in the making, has been criticized as a measure designed to weaken Florida’s public sector unions and which could, consequently, hurt working families.

During public testimony, one self-described Republican worker likened the proposal to his ex-wife (not in a good way — the misogynistic tone is noted). 

Others called it an “anti-freedom” bill, a “union busting” bill, and expressed concern that their union — and, by extension, the benefits it afforded them — could be in jeopardy if it passed. 

click to enlarge Florida union members rally outside of Rep. Sam Killebrew's office in Winter Haven in protest of anti-union bill on April 6, 2023. - CWA Local 3108
CWA Local 3108
Florida union members rally outside of Rep. Sam Killebrew's office in Winter Haven in protest of anti-union bill on April 6, 2023.

Among other things, the law bans payroll deductions of union dues effective July 1 (for those who are already voluntarily signed up for union membership).

It also requires unions to maintain a membership rate of at least 60% of workers eligible, and requires audited financial statements that are made available to union members.

Unions representing police, firefighters, correctional and probation officers (unions which generally support Republican candidates for office) are excluded from most of the bill’s provisions.

Although a less than ideal motivator, it’s spurred a powerful momentum to organize.

Spar told Orlando Weekly that the Florida Education Association’s local affiliates, for instance, have recruited 8,000 new members in the last month.

Amid an ongoing, “massive” teacher shortage, as well as an exodus of teachers from the profession, he said this means in practice, they're 5,000 union members up from the previous school year.

Education unions, a longstanding political punching bag for DeSantis, were considered the primary target of SB 256. They sued the state shortly after the measure was signed into law.

“There's no doubt that this legislation is harming our ability to collect dues, it's harming our ability to represent the interests of our members. It's undermining our constitutional right to collectively bargain our working conditions," said Andrew Gothard, president of the state's full-time faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida.

"We are looking forward to our day in court," he told Orlando Weekly.

Education unions have also long been a target of the Freedom Foundation, which is backed by the likes of the pro-privatization Charles Koch (and his brother David, before his 2019 death) and the family of former U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Based in the state of Washington, the organization claims to “advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government.”

They’re one of several conservative think tanks that lobbied in favor of Florida’s new law, as they’ve done for similar proposals in other states.

On their website, the organization enthusiastically describes Florida’s new law as “the most aggressive state labor reform in decades.”

Brown, the Freedom Foundation lobbyist, told Orlando Weekly his organization is “pro-worker,” and said he prefers that term to “anti-union.”

“Everything that we advocate for, it’s for employees’ rights,” Brown said.

Well, the right to opt out of union membership, that is (which workers in Florida can, and have been able to do even prior to this new law’s implementation).

Their group's Twitter profile, which says they're "fighting public sector unions," leaves little doubt as to which side they're on.

click to enlarge Screenshot of the Freedom Foundation's Twitter profile. June 14, 2023. - Twitter
Screenshot of the Freedom Foundation's Twitter profile. June 14, 2023.

Spar had his own choice words to describe the nature of the organization’s work.

“This is an organization that’s made it clear they’re trying to hide who they are,” he said.

“They are not transparent. This is an organization that is funded by dark money.”

Gothard added that it's telling that the only organization "sending out this nonsense" isn't even based in Florida.

A deliberate attempt at spreading ‘disinformation’

The Freedom Foundation mailer, first sent out to households last week, with another round expected to hit mailboxes within the next week, offers several examples of misleading information about the new law — or “disinformation” (that is, a willful attempt to mislead), according to the FEA.

One bullet point, explaining the new law, reads, “If you are paying dues, you are going to see your check go up!”

When questioned about this line, Brown said this was a reference to the law’s ban on automatic payroll deductions of union dues.

Meaning, sure, your paycheck will be a smidgen fatter if your dues aren't being taken out of it.

But, if you’re a union member who wants to remain a union member (something that is completely voluntary and intentional), you’ll still be paying those dues in some way regardless, even if it’s not coming directly from your paycheck.

The Freedom Foundation has a years-old tradition of sending anti-union mailers to public employees in various states, characterizing unions as greedy businesses.

In a Halloween mailer they send out to public sector workers annually, the organization describes unions as “money-sucking vampires.”

The Freedom Foundation itself reported nearly $10 million in total revenues in 2021, and $8.3 million in expenses according to a tax form obtained by ProPublica.

Freedom Foundation CEO Aaron Withe reported a total compensation package of $417,638 in 2021, and the group itself “sucked” $10.1 million in contributions and grants from donors last year.

They’ve received over $33 million in contributions since 2017.

But the group likes to point fingers at labor unions’ coffers. Within their new mailer, they warn recipients not to be “tricked” into giving their credit card or bank account information to a union.

This is likely a reference to a new dues payment system (“eDues”) that unions across the state have rolled out in order to comply with the law’s ban on automatic payroll deductions.

Unions statewide have been urging their members to sign up for the alternative electronic dues collection system ASAP to avoid being kicked off the membership rolls.

Utilizing anti-union language that might be familiar to Orlando Weekly readers, the mailer also paints unions as a “middle man,” a third party.

It demonstrates a misunderstanding about what unions are: workers coming together, as a collective, to advocate for a voice on the job and the conditions under which they labor.

“Unions are run by the members,” said Spar, the teachers union president. Referring to the union as a “middle man” is blatantly untrue, he added. “The members are the union.”

A teachers union in Minnesota also recently warned their members about a Freedom Foundation mailer distributed there, where state leaders recently passed major pro-union legislation.

Brown confirmed his organization is targeting public employees in several states that have similarly advanced measures affecting organized labor and labor relations.

Florida’s measure this year, however, was the biggest deal — a major reform package.

And that hasn't been lost on the state's  union leaders, who've been fighting similar proposals in the state legislature for years.

“Folks in Florida, particularly in Florida higher ed, we're not dummies,” said Gothard. “We know when individuals and groups are trying to manipulate us and mislead us, and try to harm us for their own political gain."

"We're not having any of it," he added.

This story was updated to include a screenshot of the Freedom Foundation's Twitter profile, to illustrate the group's anti-union sentiment.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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