Florida’s latest anti-union bill could cost public employees benefits and hurt working families

New proposals in Tallahassee could affect over 150,000 working people in Florida who are represented by unions.

click to enlarge Florida’s latest anti-union bill could cost public employees benefits and hurt working families
Photo via Orange County Classroom Teachers Association/Facebook

Legislation filed by Florida Republicans this year that targets public sector unions could threaten job benefits, such as retirement savings plans, that are afforded to thousands of public sector employees across the state of Florida, including teachers, public utilities workers, librarians and more.

It’s the latest version of similar legislation described by critics as “union-busting” that has been introduced by Florida lawmakers since at least 2011 (when now-Congressman Matt Gaetz was leading the charge), but with a supermajority of Republicans in the Florida legislature — and a governor who’s prioritized the decimation of educator unions — workers are concerned this could be the year the legislation finally passes.

“This is a bad bill,” Gretchen Robinson, a teacher with 22 years of experience in Orange County Public Schools, told Orlando Weekly. “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.”

Senate Bill 256, filed by State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, and House Bill 1445 by State Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, would, like similar versions have tried to in the past, ban the automatic deduction of dues from union members’ paychecks.

Those dues are deducted only from workers who have signed a union card. Union dues pay for the negotiations of union contracts; but those union contracts protect all the workers in a unionized shop, not just card-carrying union members. Workers who choose not to join the union and support its endeavors still enjoy the fruits of its labor.

The legislation would also impose new minimum membership requirements on most unions that represent public sector employees, in order for those unions to remain certified.

By extension, that includes the contracts or collective bargaining agreements that unions have negotiated with public employers, which outline agreements on things such as wages, scheduling, retirement benefits and health insurance costs.

Those things can make a big difference in a state that’s been described as the “least affordable place to live in the U.S.

Both Republican bill sponsors have described their bills as a way to hold unions accountable for representing the interests of their members. Critics, including public sector employees who’d be directly impacted by this legislation, have described it as a blatant attack on union rights.

Over 150,000 working people in Florida could be affected by new legislation targeting public sector unions across the state, according to the Communications Workers of America union.

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The bills are modeled after the spuriously titled “Teachers’ Bill of Rights” proposal unveiled in January by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has signed into law a slew of educational policies that have caused chaos and confusion in Florida classrooms and fear among educators, who can now face felony charges if they’re found in violation of a law governing the books they can keep in their classrooms.

But union leaders emphasize it’s not just Florida’s overworked and underpaid teachers who could be affected by this legislation, but a variety of public employees in state and local governments who help keep things running.

“We're talking about those bus drivers who are making sure your children are getting home safely and to school safely every single day. We're talking about the custodians who are making sure our facilities are clean,” Curtis Hierro, with the Communications Workers of America union in Florida, said on a press call Monday.

“In Florida, we have well over 150,000 working people who work for your city, your county, your school district — who go to work every day and provide crucial services for all working people in this state,” Hierro added.

Under the proposals, public sector unions — with the exception of those representing cops, firefighters and correctional staff — would have to reach a membership threshold of 60% in order to continue representing employees.

This means that 60% of workers eligible for union representation would need to be dues-paying members for the union to remain certified. Unions that don't meet that requirement would have to petition for recertification.

Because Florida is what’s known as a "right-to-work" state, workers can be covered by a union contract without actually paying dues.

With roots in Jim Crow-era racism, right-to-work laws make it difficult for unions to meet 60% membership, according to Michelle De Marco, an adjunct professor at Broward College and a chairperson for her union, the SEIU–Florida Public Sector Union.

De Marco, a professor of English, worries that the gains her union has made — such as winning a course cancellation fee, a grievance procedure and better pay per course credit in their contract — could be lost if this legislation were to pass.

Adjunct teaching is work that’s systematically undervalued. Adjunct jobs, which today make up the bulk of faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities, lack job security, often lack health insurance benefits, and usually require juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Without a union to help negotiate for better pay and benefits, making a living as an adjunct professor is that much harder. Especially if you live in Central Florida, where the cost of living in recent years has skyrocketed.

But it’s not just Florida where this kind of legislation has popped up.

Jennifer Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator for the Economic Policy Institute who has authored reports on public sector collective bargaining, said it’s happening across the country.

“The proposals cropping up in Florida are the same proposals that right-wing interests and corporate interest groups have proposed in states around the country,” Sherer told Orlando Weekly, pointing to anti-union model policies pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded “bill mill.”

“They are designed to weaken unions and to really undermine the ability of public employees and public educators to have a voice in their workplaces and in the policymaking arena,” said Sherer.

Republicans in Utah and Oregon have introduced similar legislation this year taking aim at public sector unions, while Oklahoma lawmakers are aggressively targeting teachers' unions specifically.

Not just the teachers: “We’re sort of a scapegoat”

Florida’s proposed anti-union bills, unlike Oklahoma’s, don’t solely target teachers unions. But educators in the state, including both K-12 educators and higher education faculty, say it might as well.

“We’re sort of a scapegoat for demagogues in Tallahassee,” Dr. Robert Cassanello told Orlando Weekly. Cassanello is a history professor at the University of Central Florida and a plaintiff in one of the first lawsuits filed against the state of Florida over its “Don’t Say Gay” law last year. “I think this bill, which is squarely a union-busting bill, continues that tradition.”

Alongside cops and firefighters, whose unions are excluded from this bill’s proposed requirements, teachers make up one of the largest occupational groups in the public sector.

When Orlando Weekly asked why firefighters and police unions were exempted from his bill, Sen. Ingoglia said this was “because these brave heroes often work second and third shifts while risking their lives to save others,” adding, “I cannot in good conscience ask them, after a 14-hour shift with no sleep, to meet with union reps to give them their check.”

While noting that this isn’t the only way union members can pay dues — “Unions are a little more creative than that,” Robinson said wryly — several public employees Orlando Weekly spoke to took offense at this response.

Robinson, a teacher of 22 years, asked, “How about the times that I've worked 15, 16, 17 hours? How about all of the other teachers that have to work second and third jobs? Maybe not second and third shifts, but second and third jobs because teaching just doesn't pay the bills?”

She added that, with mass shooting incidents continuing to occur at schools across the country, it’s not just first responders, but educators as well, who are the “brave heroes” Ingoglia speaks of.

“I’m sorry, teachers are not risking their lives? Yeah, a lot of us feel like we are sitting ducks,” Robinson said.

Clinton McCracken, an art teacher at Howard Middle School and president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association — a labor union representing 14,000 teachers in the county — said 14-hour days for teachers “is nothing new” and that teachers also face difficult conditions.

“You can look at Flagler County to see the teacher who was hospitalized because of the dangerous situation that we're in,” McCracken told Orlando Weekly.

Instead of focusing on fixing the shortage of thousands of school staff across the state, elected leaders like DeSantis (who’s rumored to have ambitions for higher office) are targeting workers’ collective bargaining rights, McCracken added, which — unlike any other Southern state — are enshrined in Florida’s state constitution.

The 60% union membership requirement, proposed within SB 256 and HB 1445, is nonetheless concerning to teachers. “That's kind of a high bar when we’ve got so many teachers leaving the profession,” said Robinson, whose union currently has about 54% membership.

She said that issues such as learning loss during the pandemic, absenteeism due to COVID-19, and the trauma students are facing from losing loved ones to the virus, have made their jobs much harder.

“I had a student who was out all of last year because he just couldn't cope. Because he had lost his dad to COVID,” said Robinson. “These are the things that our students are dealing with, and it's affecting their educational preparedness.”

Continuing a history of attacks on union rights

The attacks on teachers unions in the state are not unprecedented. Under legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott (now a U.S. Senator) in 2018, Florida teachers are already required to meet a minimum 50% membership threshold.

“We’re sort of a scapegoat for demagogues in Tallahassee,” said Dr. Robert Cassanello, a history professor at UCF. “I think this bill, which is squarely a union-busting bill, continues that tradition.”

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After thousands of Florida teachers walked off the job as part of the nation’s first statewide teachers’ strike in 1968, the Florida legislature also rushed to pass a law prohibiting public employees from going on strike again — a ban that stands to this day.

Robinson emphasized that the “union-busting” bills proposed this legislative session wouldn’t just affect Democrats or liberal union members who are already critical of the Republicans’ war against “woke ideology” in schools. About 20% of her union’s members are Republicans, she said.

“The teaching profession is frequently the first step up into the middle class for a lot of working-class families,” said Robinson.

Union workers make over 10% more, on average, compared to nonunion workers in the same industry, according to the Economic Policy Institute. According to a separate report by the EPI, unions can also help reduce pay gaps between public and private employers.

That gap is larger in states that have restricted or fully stripped public employees’ collective bargaining rights, said Sherer. And this can worsen existing problems with employee retention and recruitment at a time when state agencies are already struggling to fill positions.

“If that dream is being taken away from us, because our wages are stagnating, and then they're trying to take away the only way that we have to negotiate better conditions — well, you know, what incentive is there for people to stay in the profession?” Robinson asked. “Or in particular, to stay in the profession in Florida?”

Average teacher pay in Florida ranks near dead last in the nation, according to the National Education Association. And while DeSantis has touted proposals to increase teacher pay, this has largely focused on starting teacher pay.

Currently, Florida law requires that salary increases for teachers be based on teacher evaluation results, and not on years of experience. Union leaders say this has left longtime teachers behind.

Administrative costs associated with this year’s anti-union bills could also be expensive. A staff analysis for a similar bill proposed last year — which would have imposed a 50% membership requirement — estimated that the process of recertifying unions would have cost an estimated $824,815 in staffing expenses. A similar analysis for this year's SB 256 states that the fiscal impact is "indeterminate."

The Florida Education Association — the state’s largest educators union — and the United Faculty of Florida, a labor union representing full-time faculty and graduate assistants, are calling on union members and allies today, the first day of Florida’s 2023 legislative session, to complete the “3–7 challenge.”

The challenge: Call three lawmakers and send seven emails to elected officials in Florida, asking them to oppose further attacks on academic freedom in classrooms. “Through this, we're hoping to drive tens of thousands of contacts to Florida’s elected leaders in one day, all in service of protecting Florida’s world-class public education system!” the FEA wrote on Twitter.

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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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