Who'll talk for the teachers?

There's an oft-repeated anecdote about how Florida's education system -- 40 years old and rooted in progressive reform -- got torn apart and rebuilt, and it goes like this:

One night in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush was having dinner with then House Speaker John Thrasher. Conversation got around to the university system, which both men apparently despised. So in the course of the evening they sketched out a new order on the back of a cocktail napkin.

In a few months, Jan. 7, 2003 to be precise, that new order will take hold in Florida. That's the day the state's brand-new Board of Education begins in earnest, though it already exists. Among the many changes for Florida schools, kindergarten through college, is a change in how universities are administered. Instead of the state Board of Regents overseeing higher education, each university will have its own board of trustees. Every trustee on every board is appointed at will by Bush. He hires them, and he can fire them.

It's a day many university professors are not looking forward to, because it could mark the end of their union representation.

"That's frightening to us," says Mary Johnson, an associate professor in the University of Central Florida's film department. "That is the only thing we have to protect us. This puts the whole union in jeopardy and the union is the only bargaining chip that professors have."

Bush's reorganization of the state system doesn't outright kill the unions (the United Faculty of Florida in Johnson's case). That would be illegal.

But it does revamp the university so completely that the unions no longer have anyone to bargain with. The United Faculty of Florida has a collective bargaining contract with the Board of Regents, which of course will cease to exist. No regents, no contract.

"What is happening across the state is that Bush has created what really could be argued is a union-busting situation," says Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, headquartered in Tallahassee.

Now the union must negotiate contracts individually with each board of trustees. As of last week, nine of the 11 boards of trustees (aptly referred to by the acronym "UBOTS") had filed notice with the Public Employees Relations Commission, a neutral, state-funded mediation board, that they were not going to negotiate at this time. UCF's Board of Trustees (cdws.ucf.edu) is among those nine. The board is scheduled to meet Oct. 25 to discuss the issue. Trustees did not return phone calls from Orlando Weekly for this story.

A year ago union representatives weren't as concerned about the boards of trustees. Some union reps, like Roy Weatherford, a philosphy professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, believed that Bush's appointees were a touch too business-oriented, but conceded the point because that's the way the game is played these days.

"The trustees in Florida, by a strong majority, are people who are corporate campaign contributors to Bush," says Weatherford.

Nonetheless, union officials were assured that union-busting was not the driving force behind the new order. Auxter says Phil Handy, the Winter Park investment banker appointed by Bush to chair the Board of Education, gave assurances to that effect. "I personally heard him say it because I debated him on the floor of the faculty senate," says Auxter.

Now that trustees have filed notice of their intent not to negotiate, Auxter thinks he's been duped. "They're saying they have no authority to negotiate."

Handy did not return phone calls for this story. It's worth noting, however, that he ran into trouble in June when four Florida newspapers threatened to sue the Board of Education for meeting with university trustees behind closed doors. It turns out Handy and the trustees were working on plans to get Bush re-elected. Not surprising, given that Bush appointed them in the first place.

In the closed-door meetings Handy's group drafted documents titled "Marketing plan to enhance Governor's Re-election," and "Marketing plan for selling K-20 system," among other things. In the meetings the trustees were urged to support the man that appointed them.

It's obvious why they wanted to meet out of the sunshine -- state law forbids public agencies from participating in political campaigns.

Boards of trustees at each university have a lot of latitude on how they'll deal with union contracts. Arlen Chase, a UCF professor of anthropology and the campus union representative, thinks trustees at that campus will eventually be willing to talk. "I assume our contract isn't going away."

Just to be sure it doesn't, Chase is now in the midst of an "authorization" card campaign. If 60 percent of the faculty at UCF sign pledge cards stating they agree to be represented by the United Faculty of Florida (www.unitedfacultyofflorida.org), the union will have the legal muscle it needs to keep the current contract in force even if UCF's board of trustees won't negotiate.

On the other hand, if Chase doesn't get 60 percent to sign up, the union would have to start organizing again from scratch.

That could take years, says Auxter. In the meantime, he adds, UCF could find itself in the same nasty situation as Florida State University, where the board of trustees has already made its stance abundantly clear.

"FSU will not be recognizing the union," he says. "All faculty rights will disappear at FSU as of Jan. 7."

Without unions, professors can say goodbye to protections like collective bargaining, grievance procedures and anti-discrimination policies. The union, says Auxter, is an academician's last line of defense against "power-mad petty tyrants taking your job so their friends can have a job."

An atmosphere like that is especially stifling at a university, where freedom of expression is paramount, he adds. "The last thing you want at a university is a faculty that won't say what they think."