Florida labor unions affiliated with the state’s largest labor federation gathered outside three state Republican lawmakers’ offices on Thursday for a statewide day of action, urging lawmakers to oppose a bill that’s been criticized as “union busting” for cracking down on the state’s public sector unions.
HB 1445, similar to bills filed during previous legislative sessions, would administer a number of changes to public sector unions, including a ban on the automatic deduction of union dues from union members’ paychecks (a change that's frequently, but speciously, described by Republicans as “paycheck protection”), as well as financial auditing requirements, and a membership requirement of 60% of eligible employees minimum.
That’s a threshold that workers say is difficult to achieve in a “right to work” state, where you don’t have to be a dues-paying union member to reap the benefits of a union contract.
The three Republicans targeted all voted in favor of a similar House bill last year: James Buchanan of Sarasota County, David Smith of Seminole County, and Sam Killebrew representing parts of Polk.
Labor leaders gathered outside their offices wearing an array of union T-shirts and holding signs with messages like, “Protect MY freedom to belong to MY union!” before delivering letters to the offices, asking legislators to oppose the bill.
Rally at @repsamkillebrew office in Winter Haven asking that he stand with working people and vote no on HB1445 @CWAUnion pic.twitter.com/1M96LRFXB6— CWA Local 3108 (@CWA3108) April 6, 2023
“This is a bill that’s designed to harm and dismantle public sector unions,” said Roy Sorenson, representing the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 412 outside Rep. Buchanan’s office in North Port, south of Tampa Bay.
Sorenson’s union, based in Sarasota, represents skilled stage crew workers in the private sector, but he argues that effects of the bill — the risk of union decertification, and the consequent loss of a union contract — could trickle down to all workers.
“In the long run, if they want to go after the public sector unions, they’re eventually going to come after us,” he said.
The Senate version of the bill, SB 256, was approved by Florida’s Republican-dominated Senate last week, with just five Republicans crossing the party line to vote no.
But the House version, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dean Black, still has one more committee stop before reaching the full House floor — where a similar bill got majority approval last year.
Unlike last year, however, Florida’s state legislature now has a supermajority of Republican lawmakers in office, making its passage even more likely.
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged a political war against the state’s teachers unions, which endorsed his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist last year and which represent a significant portion of the state’s unionized public sector workforce.
“Make no mistake, this is not a ‘paycheck protection’ bill. This is an anti-freedom bill,” said Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, outside the office of Rep. Killebrew in Winter Haven.
An estimated 291,000 public employees in Florida were covered by a union contract in 2022, according to UnionStats, a database that compiles information from the U.S. Census Bureau, representing 26.4% of the state's public sector workforce.
The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, represents at least 150,000 educators and school staff, including school counselors and library media specialists.
A Senate bill analysis identified that at least 45 of the 75 teachers unions in the state could be at risk for decertification — with membership rates between 50% and 60% — if this legislation were to pass.
As multiple workers have told Orlando Weekly, this could mean the loss of benefits afforded to workers through their union contracts, such as planning time for lessons, duty-free lunch breaks, scheduled pay raises and agreements on the cost of healthcare premiums.
These are things that teachers say are important not just for themselves and their families, but also for their students and students' quality of education. Teachers unions can help reduce teacher stress, while anti-union laws can increase it.
The Florida AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing over 500 labor unions in Florida, also argues that the bill infringes on rights guaranteed to workers in Florida’s state constitution. That state constitution guarantees for workers the right to collectively bargain.
“Make no mistake, this is not a ‘paycheck protection’ bill. This is an anti-freedom bill,” said Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Associationtweet this
Through Florida’s right to work policy, also baked into the state constitution, workers also have the right to benefit from a union contract without having to pay dues to support a union's activities.
Both the House and Senate bills notably exempt firefighter and police unions from the legislation, similar to bills either proposed or passed by other state legislatures across the U.S, including the infamous Act 10 of Wisconsin, which led to a weeks-long protest outside of the state capitol.
One Florida retiree who stood outside the office of Rep. Buchanan today said he was in Wisconsin for that protest. He shared that firefighters, despite being exempted by the bill, stood outside the capitol with other public sector workers during that time in solidarity.
“They were in the very forefront of these 100,000 demonstrators,” said Haldon Sutton, a trustee of the United Auto Workers Retired Workers council in Southwest Florida. “That is the true meaning of solidarity.”
So far, police officers and firefighters have been absent from the crowds of dozens of union members who have traveled up to Tallahassee to speak out against the Florida legislation. (We’ve been watching, but if we’re wrong, let us know.)
Public transit workers, including Central Florida's union Lynx bus drivers, were also carved out of the Senate bill just prior to its vote on the Senate floor, after Orlando Weekly reported that including them could cost the state over $500 million dollars in federal transit funds. As it is, the administrative costs of the legislation are still estimated to reach upward of $900,000, according to a bill analysis.
The bills have garnered the support of conservative think tanks like Americans for Prosperity and the James Madison Institute, as well as the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
The International Brotherhood of the Teamsters — a labor union representing workers in both the private and public sectors — as well as the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have denounced the legislation. National representatives from the latter two have joined events in Florida calling out Republican educational policies cultivating chaos in classrooms in addition to legislation threatening Florida unions.