Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate approves anti-union bill, largely along party lines

Five Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the bill with Democrats.

click to enlarge State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill - Photo via News Service of Florida
Photo via News Service of Florida
State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill

After lengthy discussion among Florida Senators, and a wave of opposition from Florida’s unionized public sector workforce, Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate approved a bill described as “union-busting” by critics in a 23–17 vote, with five Republicans crossing party lines to vote against the bill with Democrats.

The bill, SB 256, is widely perceived as an attack on Florida’s public sector unions, particularly Florida’s teachers unions, which represent more than 150,000 teachers and public school staff statewide, and which have become a political punching bag for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

A House version, sponsored by Florida Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, is still making its way through its committee stops, meaning the legislation's not on its way to DeSantis’ desk just yet.

Under the bill, public sector unions — with the exception of those representing cops, firefighters, corrections officers and probation officers — would need to maintain a membership of at least 60% of employees eligible to remain certified and therefore maintain any contract they have with an employer.

Because Florida’s a right to work state, employees of a unionized workplace don’t need to sign up for union membership in order to reap the benefits of a union contract.

The right-to-work policy in Florida (the first state to establish such a policy) makes it hard to reach 60% membership, according to multiple union organizers and workers who spoke to Orlando Weekly.

If unions don’t have at least 60% membership — at least 45 teachers’ unions didn’t, as of the last school year — they face the risk of decertification.

With decertification also comes the dissolution of a union contract, if a union isn't able to recertify.

What does that mean? It means items negotiated within contracts, such as wage increases, retirement benefits, healthcare costs, family leave, and paid time off and vacation time could be nullified. The employer is no longer required to meet those contractual obligations.

Michelle De Marco, an adjunct faculty member at Broward College, previously told Orlando Weekly she wasn't sure her employer (the college) would uphold the gains they've made in contract negotiations if her union were decertified.  Although she said her union, the SEIU, hasn't had as hard a time during negotiations with her college administration compared to some other colleges (like Valencia), she's worried about losing items they fought for, such as course cancellation fees.

The bill would also impose additional auditing requirements (something Republican Sen. Joe Gruters cited as a concern for smaller unions) and it would prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues from the paychecks of workers who have willingly signed up to become dues-paying union members.

That's a change that workers have said would pose a significant inconvenience, and would infringe on their freedoms.

“I do not need the government telling me what I can and cannot deduct from my paycheck,” Elizabeth Rasmussen, a teacher of 15 years in Polk County, told a Senate committee earlier this month. “I was raised on conservative principles of freedom and small government, and this bill is the opposite of those principles.”

A laundry list of carve-outs

The bill's been controversial for a number of reasons, and has been altered to carve out even more workers, which begs the question of who it's really supposed to help or hurt.

After Orlando Weekly reported that the bill’s passage could threaten the state's ability to secure federal transit funds, bill sponsor Sen. Ingoglia filed an amendment, adopted on Wednesday, that would add public transit workers to the laundry list of workers exempted from his “pro-union” legislation.

Transit unions had warned that the bill would infringe on employee protections that, under federal law, public transit systems are required to maintain in order to receive funds from the Department of Transportation.

In Florida, the ATU estimated that’d risk a loss of over $500 million for public transit systems in this fiscal year alone, including $43 million in the Orlando area.

Sen. Ingoglia argued on Wednesday that he still doesn’t think that risk is credible, but filed the amendment anyway, just in case.

Sen. Pizzo, a Democrat, also filed an amendment, to exempt emergency medical technicians.

That amendment failed.

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, who disclosed a net worth of $10.26 million in his most recent financial disclosure filing, has said the bill would force union representatives to have more face-to-face conversations with workers in order to collect dues and to maintain at least 60% membership.

But, this “pro-union” bill exempts police and firefighter unions (commonly exempted from similar proposals in other states), which are known for endorsing Republicans like Ingoglia — whose political action committee Government Gone Wild has received $15,000 from the Florida Police Benevolent Association since 2020.

Some critics (working Floridians, that is) have pointed out that, if the bill were truly “pro-union” and good policy, those firefighter and police unions would want in on it, too.

And that’s (part of) where the argument that this is a bill to strengthen, not hurt unions falls flat.

“It's just an effort to defund the union,” said Josh Zivalich, a Teamster from South Florida, of Florida's Senate Bill 256

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“It's just an effort to defund the union,” Josh Zivalich, principal officer for the Teamsters Local 769 in South Florida, told Orlando Weekly. It's unfair, he added, and unwarranted.

The Teamsters represent a wide range of public sector workers, according to Zivalich, including 911 dispatchers, public works employees, and sanitation workers.

In Florida, however, they primarily represent workers in the private sector, such as United Parcel Service drivers who are preparing for their own potential strike this summer.

“This isn’t just an attack on public sector union members, it’s an attack on all workers,” Teamsters General President Sean M. O’Brien said in a statement condemning Florida’s SB 256, released Tuesday.

“Union members make more money than nonunion workers doing the exact same job,” O’Brien added. “When unions are weaker, working people have less money in their pockets and the whole country suffers.”

A target on the backs of unions

Placing a target on the backs of public employee unions in the form of legislation is nothing new.

Florida’s teacher unions, specifically, are already required to have a 50% participation rate (or membership) in Florida to avoid decertification, under a controversial 2018 bill signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida’s public sector at large is also prohibited from striking, and has been since 1968, one year after some 27,000 teachers walked off the job in the nation’s first statewide teachers’ strike.

This bill is also similar to Republican-backed bills that have failed to pass during previous legislative sessions, dating at least as far back as 2011.

Then-Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz led the charge on Florida’s behalf in a national war on public sector collective bargaining that emerged around that time, according to a 2012 article penned by Harvard professor Richard Freeman and then-doctoral student Eunice Han.

This war on public sector unionism, Freeman and Han wrote, was largely driven by “political opportunism and ideological opposition to governments bargaining with their employees” after the 2008-2009 recession.

Wisconsin is one state that successfully restricted collective bargaining for the public sector in 2011, citing budgetary concerns — despite weeks of protests at the state Capitol building that brought out more than 100,000 Wisconsin workers and allies from across the country, including actress Susan Sarandon and musician Tom Morello (who wrote a song afterward that was reportedly inspired by the uprising).

The “Wisconsin Budget Repair Act,” championed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, banned automatic dues deductions and, more significantly, prohibited public sector unions from negotiating on issues like pensions and working conditions, allowing only for negotiations on inflationary wage increases.

Cops, firefighters and state troopers were largely exempted. (Familiar?)

Fourteen Democrats (one of whom was reportedly seven months pregnant at the time) fled the state for three weeks, in order to deny Walker and his Republican allies quorum. Republicans found a way to push it through anyway, and it effectively kneecapped public sector unions in what was the first state to grant public-sector employees the right to unionize, in 1959.

Similar anti-union legislation was signed into law in Ohio, then repealed by voters within a year.

In Florida, Republican lawmakers have been emboldened by their new supermajority in the state legislature after a red tide swept the state last year.

In 2022, a similar bill to SB 256 died in the Senate after getting approval in the Florida House. The change in the legislature's composition hasn't been lost on lawmakers.

“Now there seems to be the political will to smash the unions,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat. “Not to help these workers, but to help political ambitions.”

Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones called it a “slap in the face” to many of the workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic. “This seems like we are once again picking winners and losers, and we are playing partisan politics.”

“Now there seems to be the political will to smash the unions,” said Florida Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat. “Not to help these workers, but to help political ambitions.”

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Self-described Republican union members themselves testified against the bill when it was being heard in its committee stops, arguing that it distracts from the real issues they’re facing in the workplace.

“The worker shortages are real, from bus drivers to teachers, from food service professionals to custodians — you’re overworked,” said Patrick Strong, a self-described Republican and paraprofessional in Okaloosa County. “In the midst of it all, the legislators are proposing taking away my freedoms by not allowing dues deductions and mandating a certain percentage of membership.”

The only open supporters of the bill during those committee stops were  largely representatives of conservative think tanks, like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, not workers.

Jennifer Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator for the Economic Policy Institute who’s authored a number of reports on public sector unionism, previously told Orlando Weekly that this kind of legislation is part of a coordinated campaign, not unique to Florida.

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

Meanwhile, Democratic-sponsored legislation to re-establish a state Department of Labor in Florida, an agency that was dismantled in the early aughts, continues to languish. 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.

“There is nothing —nothing in this bill that negatively impacts employees’ ability to join, maintain membership in, pay for, or participate in their union,” Sen. Ingoglia emphasized on Wednesday, speaking on SB 256.

He noted that at least one union in South Florida (he didn’t name names) has been sending out emails asking union members to recruit others to the union, or join the union, to get ahead of his bill’s passage.

He cited this as evidence that his legislation is good for unions, and will get more people to sign up to join them.

But, then, that doesn’t explain why unions oppose it.

If you are a worker (union or not) who has thoughts on this bill (whether in support or against), email reporter McKenna Schueler at [email protected].

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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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