TALLAHASSEE – Teachers unions and those representing health care workers would face new hurdles organizing and keeping members under measures advancing in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, moves one opponent cast as “plainly political retribution.”
The state’s biggest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and the labor organization Service Employees International Union, which represents health care employees and others, fought bitterly against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election campaign last fall.
The Republican governor, expected to join his party’s presidential field in coming weeks, has been clamoring for fresh restrictions on unions, especially the teachers’ organizations which opposed him.
Lawmakers Thursday served them up.
Bills (HB 1445, SB 256) approved in mostly party-line votes in House and Senate committees prohibit paycheck deductions for specific public-sector union dues and increase to 60% the employee membership in a union, which if it fails to meet that standard, could be decertified.
Current law requires 50% employee membership for the teachers union to retain its certification, a benchmark in place less than five years.
But the political shading of the legislation deepens, critics said, because public sector unions that tend to endorse, contribute and work in the campaigns of Florida Republicans – correctional officers, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders — are shielded from the proposed tougher requirements.
Political retribution, zero sense, opponent says
“This bill is plainly political retribution,” said Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, adding that the measures applying new rules solely for the Democratic-leaning unions “make zero sense.”
She questioned whether the legislation violates right-to-work protections guaranteed in the Florida Constitution. And Joseph noted it seemed aimed at professions that have a large workforce of women, another area for potential legal challenge.
But the House sponsor, Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said that the stricter standards applied to select unions will increase their accountability for members.
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Exempting the Republican-leaning labor groups has been rationalized by supporters who cite the demanding work and unpredictable hours which go into a job in first-responder professions.
“The notion that this bill is going to infringe on anyone’s right to collectively bargain should simply be rejected out of hand,” Black said.
Florida teachers union accountability will improve: sponsor
He added that with the legislation’s expected approval in coming weeks by Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, “The union has been made more accountable to the worker.”
Few Democrats or labor representatives said they believed Black’s claim.
“The only people here supporting this are not workers, they’re not public employers, they have nothing to do with it,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO, which represents 1.6 million members, retirees and their families.
Templin pointed out that the only organizations publicly supporting the changes Thursday were the business-backed, Americans for Prosperity, James Madison Institute and Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“Who you are hearing from are workers, and they’re asking you to vote ‘no,’” he said.
Stephanie Kunkel with the Florida Education Association, with almost 150,000 members, also pushed back.
‘Free state of Florida’ questions
“In the free state of Florida, employees should be free to decide how they direct their paycheck and spend the hard-earned money that they have made,” Kunkel said. “Employees currently can direct their paycheck through payroll deduction to pay for supplemental health insurance premiums, for life insurance policies, make charitable contributions and, yes, even pay for gym memberships.”
“Why are we removing one payroll slot and prohibiting an employee to direct their paycheck to pay for their union dues in the same way?” Kunkel added.
Republicans in the Florida Legislature have scrapped with Democratic-leaning unions for years. But DeSantis began pushing for the heightened demands on the teachers union since just weeks after he was re-elected by a 19% margin over Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, whose running mate was Miami-Dade County teachers union leader Karla Hernandez.
DeSantis called the change “paycheck protection legislation.”
DeSantis clashed with teachers unions over the reopening of schools during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the governor frames the new requirements as supporting his separate push to raise teacher salaries.
In a December speech, DeSantis said the new union demands will assure state money is “not going to be frittered away by interest groups who get involved in the school system.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport