Florida’s anti-union bill could risk over $500 million in federal funds, unions say

Meanwhile, sponsor Sen. Blaise Ingoglia insists that the bill is pro-union.

click to enlarge Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee - Adobe
Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee

The Florida Senate on Thursday heard a bill that labor unions across the state warn could risk the state over $500 million dollars in federal transit funds.

A Senate bill analysis shows that administrative costs associated with the bill's proposed requirements for public sector unions in the state could also cost the state (and thereby, taxpayers) an extra $900,000.

“Not only will this bill cost taxpayers nearly a million a year in extra paperwork, this bill puts billions of federal funding for public transit in Florida at jeopardy,” Zef Durham, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1579, said in a statement.

Under SB 256, Florida’s public sector unions, with the exception of those representing firefighters, law enforcement, correctional staff and firefighters, would be required to maintain a membership of 60% of eligible employees in order to remain certified. (In a right-to-work state like Florida, you don’t have to be a union member to be covered by a union contract.)

Failing to reach this 60% threshold could lead to decertification.

Decertification not only shuts down a union, so to speak, but also nullifies a union’s contract, meaning everything within that contract — such as scheduled pay raises, agreements on health insurance costs and retirement benefits — could go out the window.

The North Central Florida Central Labor Council, a coalition of several labor unions (including the ATU Local 1579) says this could also prevent Florida's public transit systems from accessing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transit funds allocated through President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021.

That's because federal law requires transit systems to maintain certain employee protections in order for them to receive the federal grants they apply for, 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, assurances of employment to employees of acquired transit systems, priority of reemployment, and paid training or retraining programs."

Utah is facing a similar issue, with a proposal just signed into law by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that goes further than Florida's by outright stripping transit workers of their collective bargaining rights.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Florida Senator Gayle Harrrel, a Republican from the Treasure Coast, asked Sen. Blaise Ingoglia — the sponsor of Florida's SB 256 — whether the claim from the unions regarding the potential loss in federal transit funds has merit.

He denied it.

"It won't affect them at all," Ingoglia said, adding that federal law only requires that transit employees be covered by some kind of protective agreement — not necessarily a collective bargaining agreement.

But, as Sen. Jason Pizzo — a Democrat — pointed out, that actually doesn't seem to be true.

Paraphrasing a relevant section of federal law, Pizzo read, "for a public transit agency to receive federal transit funding, the U.S. Department of Labor must certify that arrangements are in place for the continuation of collective collective bargaining rights for employees."

After a pause, Pizzo added, "I don't know who told you about other forms, but definitively from the federal government, the effect on public transit systems in Florida would be therefore rendered ineligible to the tune of losing federal assistance of $542 million dollars."

And told Ingoglia he had a link to prove it.

According to a fact sheet from the White House, Florida has been allocated $529 million in federal public transit funds for the fiscal years of 2022 and 2023 along. All in all, Florida's set to receive $2.8 billion over five years.

Or, will it?

Last week, Dwight Mattingly, president and business of the ATU Local 1577 in Palm Beach, told lawmakers the city of Orlando by itself could stand to lose $43 million alone in federal funds for transportation in the next year.

That could, consequently, also lead to a reduction in public transportation services and potentially lead to layoffs, according to the North Central Florida Central Labor Council.

When pushed by Pizzo this Thursday, Ingoglia (also the sponsor of an anti-trans bill, an anti-immigration bill, and a bill to "cancel" the Democratic Party) said his team could "double-check" on whether his controversial bill could affect federal transit funding.

"It is my understanding that ... the Department of Labor has developed these special agreements to be put in place in the absence of collective bargaining agreements," he said, adding that public transit employees in some states don't have collective bargaining rights.

And that's true. Collective bargaining rights are banned for public sector workers in at least five states, although legislation has been introduced this year in at least one of those states (Georgia) to re-establish those rights.

The Florida Senate didn't vote on SB 256 Thursday, but could vote on it as early as early next week. The legislation — and its House equivalent — have been fiercely opposed by Florida's organized labor, including the Florida AFL-CIO, which represents over 500 labor unions in the state of Florida.

The bill would impose new regulations and requirements on labor unions representing a wide range of over 150,000 public employees, including teachers, faculty, public healthcare workers, and all of the public employees who help keep communities running each day, from garbage collectors to 911 dispatchers and more.

Sen. Ingoglia described the legislation in a statement to Orlando Weekly as "pro-union" and has argued in front of his colleagues that it would strengthen, not hurt unions, by requiring more face-to-face conversations between union leaders and workers in order for those unions to maintain or reach the membership rate needed to remain certified.

Union members from across the state, including self-identified Republicans, have called it "union-busting" on its face, and say it infringes on their rights and freedoms as workers.  In addition to the membership threshold, it would also ban the automatic deduction of dues from union members' paychecks - a convenience Ingoglia previously described during a committee stop for his bill as a "privilege" and not a right.

Nationwide, Republicans in at least three other states — Utah, Oklahoma, and Oregon — are pursuing similar policies targeting public employee unions this year.

Private sector employees' union rights (with the exception of agricultural workers and domestic workers) are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Meanwhile, legislation to re-establish a state Department of Labor in Florida, an agency that was dismantled in the early aughts under former Gov. Jeb Bush, is languishing. A bill that'd exempt minor league baseball players from Florida's minimum wage of $11 per hour is also advancing, despite poverty conditions reported by many of those players across the country.


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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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