Florida Republicans on Thursday advanced legislation, described as “union busting” by critics, that would impose new restrictions on most of Florida’s public sector unions and could cost the state nearly one million dollars.
The legislation’s bill sponsors, State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R) — who admitted he’s never been a union member — and State Rep. Dean Black (R), say their proposals are meant to increase transparency within unions and hold unions leaders accountable to the interests of the workers they represent.
But union members in Florida who could stand to be affected by the bill — ranging from Florida’s public school teachers, to sanitation workers, public healthcare workers, transit workers, and more — say the GOP proposals would threaten their unions’ survival, and could cost them benefits afforded to them under their union contracts.
Dozens of union members from across the state Thursday, including self-described Republicans, (again) pleaded with lawmakers to oppose the legislation.
“The only thing transparent about it is that it is a union killer,” said Florida State University professor Jeff Beekman, who said he comes from a family of public elementary school teachers in Volusia County.
Gretchen Robinson, a teacher in Orange County Public Schools, previously told Orlando Weekly she also felt the bill was designed to kill her union. “It’s a mean bill. It’s going to hurt families, and it’s going to hurt all educators’ families, and especially it’s going to hurt working-class families,” she said.
Under SB 256, and a similar House version HB 1445, public sector unions representing over 150,000 workers in Florida would face a number of controversial changes.
Unions representing firefighters, law enforcement, correctional and probation officers would be exempted.
Under the legislation, non-exempt public employee unions would, for instance, be barred from automatically deducting union dues from members’ paychecks, which Sen. Ingoglia previously described as a “privilege” and not a “right.”
Because Florida is a right-to-work state, automatic dues deduction is only an issue that applies to workers that willingly sign up for union membership. Under Florida’s right-to-work policy, workers in unionized workplaces are covered by a union contract, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members or not.
Those union contracts, known as collective bargaining agreements, include agreements on things such as pay raises, health insurance benefits, retirement benefits, grievance procedures, and sick leave: Things that could be threatened if this legislation were to pass, due to the 60% membership threshold the legislation would also require unions to maintain in order for them to remain in place.
“This has real world ramifications for hundreds of thousands of working Floridians who have used their union as a passport out of poverty”tweet this
“That means their wage scale is gone overnight, at will. Their health care benefits: gone. New health care plan, your deductible through the roof,” Curtis Hierro, with the Communications Workers of America union, told lawmakers. “This has real world ramifications for hundreds of thousands of working Floridians who have used their union as a passport out of poverty.”
Union workers, on average, make over 10% more than their nonunion counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And unions have also shown to help reduce racial and gender wage gaps, as well as wage gaps between workers in the private and public sectors.
Hierro told lawmakers that he personally grew up in a troubled, impoverished household in South Miami-Dade. His mom worked as a sex worker, his father got caught up in the drug trade. “And I made it out of that life,” Hierro said, his voice rising. “I made it out of that cycle because of my labor movement and my union that gave me a voice, that gave me opportunity.”
Sen. Ingoglia, a former chair of the state Republican party who’s filed a number of controversial bills this year, said that SB 256 wouldn’t threaten workers’ collective bargaining rights, which are enshrined in Florida’s state constitution, along with the nation’s oldest right-to-work policy.
But union members say it might as well. Although Florida’s teachers unions are already required to maintain a dues-paying membership of at least 50% of all eligible employees, under a controversial bill signed into law in 2018, other public sector unions only need 30% of eligible members to sign cards in order to gain formal union recognition.
A 60% membership threshold, union leaders say, is difficult to achieve in a right-to-work state, where you don’t have to pay union dues to reap the benefits of having a union.
Unions that don’t meet that 60% would, under the bill, need to recertify with the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission in order to remain valid, so to speak.
And that could be costly.
The cost of targeting public sector unions
According to a bill analysis for the House version, published prior to Thursday’s meeting, the process of recertifying unions that fall under that 60% threshold could cost the state upwards of $900,000.
Sen. Ingoglia guessed that his proposal would cost the state close to $1 million, but added that he believed that money would be added to the state budget. Democratic Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who represents parts of Orange County, said she’d rather see that money go directly towards the paychecks of hard-working Floridians.
Even more, the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing 6,000 transit employees in the state of Florida, believes that nearly $1 million dollar figure is just a conservative estimate.
According to the ATU, the passage of this legislation could also potentially prevent the state from receiving as much as $525 million in federal funds in 2023 alone, due to employee protection requirements baked into the Federal Transit Act.
Under that federal law, public transit systems that wish to receive federal funds must offer certain protections to mass transit employees, including “the preservation of rights and benefits of employees under existing collective bargaining agreements, the continuation of collective bargaining rights, the protection of individual employees against a worsening of their positions in relation to their employment.”
The ATU estimates that the state altogether could lose billions of dollars over the life of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden in 2021.
“By requiring recertification elections and prohibiting bargaining over and enforcement of existing dues deductions provisions in existing collective bargaining agreements, SB 256/HB 1445 would void existing employee protection agreements required as a condition for federal transit grant funding and prevent compliance to obtain future grant funds,” the ATU wrote in a letter addressed to Florida legislators, forwarded by the union to Orlando Weekly.
“If Florida state law stripped transit employees of their right to bargain over dues deduction and require recertification elections jeopardizing their representation rights and labor contracts, the U.S. Department of Labor would be unable to make such a certification, preventing Florida transit authorities’ ability to receive federal transit funding,” the letter added.
Dwight Mattingly, president and business of the ATU Local 1577 in Palm Beach, said the city of Orlando could stand to lose $43 million alone in federal funds for transportation. In Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach, that loss could amount to $150 million combined. And those are just in some of the big metros.
This concern isn’t without precedent. The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this month that a Utah bill that’d strip transit workers of their collective bargaining rights altogether could jeopardize their state’s own federal transportation funding.
That bill in Utah goes further than Florida’s proposals, however, in explicitly stripping workers of their union rights. And it’s unclear if the decertification risk under Florida’s HB 1445/SB 256 would constitute enough of a threat to transit workers’ collective bargaining rights to prevent the acquisition of federal funds.
Two calls that Orlando Weekly made to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management-Services, to inquire after this risk, went unanswered Thursday afternoon.
But, in a letter last month, the director of the DOL reportedly warned Utah lawmakers that any law that “removed or diminished any transit employees’ collective bargaining rights” would raise “serious concerns” with the federal agency’s ability to certify federal grant applications for the Utah Transit Authority, according to the Tribune.
Steve Simon, a wastewater treatment plant operator and business agent for the ATU’s local in Tampa said these latest legislative proposals in Florida are nonetheless “a senseless attack on frontline workers,” including sanitation workers, 911 dispatchers, and code enforcement officers who could see their union overburdened or decertified under the bills’ requirements.
“I do not need the government telling me what I can and cannot deduct from my paycheck,” said Elizabeth Rasmussen, a teacher of 15 years in Polk County, told lawmakers in the Senate’s Fiscal Policy Committee. “I was raised on conservative principles of freedom and small government, and this bill is the opposite of those principles.”
An attack on Florida’s teachers
Although similar legislation has been proposed in Florida since at least 2011, this year’s proposals are modeled after a “Teachers Bill of Rights” proposal from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an opponent of the state’s teachers unions.
DeSantis has signed into law a number of policies in recent years that have created chaos, confusion, and frustration in Florida’s public schools — from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law (which Florida’s GOP is trying to expand this year) to a law regulating which books are "appropriate" enough to remain in school classrooms and libraries.
Many teachers, and Democratic lawmakers, say these educational policies have been imposed in the absence of sufficiently addressing issues such as insufficient teacher pay (Florida’s average teacher salary ranks near dead-last nationwide), an ongoing labor shortage in schools, struggles among students, as well as bread-and-butter issues affecting all workers, such as Florida’s unaffordable housing crisis.
“We have teachers who are demoralized. We have a teacher shortage,” said Sen. Thompson. “We have problems with teacher retention. And we’re here today to attack teachers. That’s what this bill boils down to.”
Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) pointed out that the only open supporters of the bill were representatives from conservative think-tanks and business groups, like Americans for Prosperity — a Koch-funded conservative libertarian organization — and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“But the real people sitting inside this room who came to stand at this podium, beg and plead to us not to do this to them — those are the people who we represent,” said Jones.
Orlando State Sen. Victor Torres, a former union cop from New York and an ongoing dues-paying member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades union, even in retirement, also bashed the bill.
.@FLSenatorTorres, a dues-paying @GoIUPAT member in Orlando, calls out Florida Sen. @GovGoneWild, who has never been a union member, for SB256, which targets most public sector unions in Florida by requiring a 60% membership threshold, etc pic.twitter.com/bDuYhG7qoX— McKenna Schueler (@SheCarriesOn) March 16, 2023
But, despite Democratic opposition, both bills cleared their respective committees Thursday along party lines.
Only one Republican Senator, out of 14 on the Senate’s Fiscal Policy Committee, voted against the legislation, which union members have described as an attack on their rights as workers and their freedoms as residents of the so-called ‘Free State of Florida.’
All Democrats who heard the bills today voted them down.
“Make no mistake, this is going to cause harm,” Torres told Orlando Weekly over the phone Friday morning. “These are working people. These are people that get up every day to do their jobs and to provide a service for the public. And for me, I can't understand why you go after them.”
SB 254 is now ready to go to the full Senate for a vote, while HB 1445 will head to another subcommittee.
Because Florida’s legislature is controlled by a Republican supermajority, Republican lawmakers would need to break party lines to block the bills’ otherwise likely passage.