Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed into law a bill based on a proposal he released earlier this year that’s designed to undermine most public sector unions across the state, under the guise of “paycheck protection.”
Over a decade in the making, the union bill imposes new requirements on unions representing thousands of Floridians who work within the public sector, from bus drivers, to sanitation workers, public healthcare workers, librarians, 911 dispatchers, social welfare employees, and city and county government workers.
The bill will make it more difficult for unions to collect dues, impose costly financial audits that could unduly burden smaller unions, and will make it harder for unions to remain certified and to bargain for better pay and working conditions for the workers they represent, including those who choose not to financially support their union as a dues-paying member.
While the bill will affect thousands of working Floridians across the state who work within the public sector, DeSantis pointedly focused on the state’s education unions at the bill-signing event Tuesday.
Governor DeSantis Signs Legislation to Empower Florida Educators https://t.co/9QWBnTu47d
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) May 9, 2023
Florida’s education unions, representing over 150,000 school teachers, school counselors, educational support professionals, higher education faculty, and other school staff make up a sizable chunk of the state’s unionized public sector workforce.
They also regularly endorse Democrats for office, like DeSantis’ 2022 challenger for governor, former Gov. Charlie Crist, and have become a political punching bag of DeSantis, who’s waged a war on comprehensive classroom instruction of the history of race relations, gender identity, and sexual orientation in his run-up to an expected 2024 bid for U.S. president.
Unions representing cops, firefighters, correctional and probation officers — which often endorse Republicans for office, and donate generously to their campaigns — are exempted from most provisions of the legislation, which has been proposed in some iteration since at least 2011.
After mass transit worker unions warned the legislation could cost the state of Florida over $500 million in federal transit funds, those unions got their own carveout of sorts, too.
“Gov. DeSantis gives a lot of lip service to supporting teachers, but he doesn’t want to hear teachers or staff, pay them what they’re worth or give them the professional respect that they deserve,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement after the bill signing. “This new law grossly oversteps in trying to silence teachers, staff, professors and most other public employees. We will not go quietly — our students and our professions are simply too important.”
Touted as legislation to “empower educators,” the “paycheck protection” initiative is similar to other policies enacted in other states across the country, backed by conservative, billionaire-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council — which feeds model policies to state legislators.
Florida’s bill was also backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Freedom Foundation and the Opportunity Solutions Project, a lobbying arm of the Florida-based group that’s behind a national campaign to deregulate child labor and put kids back to work in dangerous occupations.
State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, who’s a dues-paying member of the labor union IUPAT and a former union cop, blasted the legislation in a statement. “Republicans
and Governor DeSantis continue their attacks on our union employees who
are hard-working laborers and public servants,” said Torres. “These attempts at
union-busting and decertifying public teachers unions across Florida will make the teacher shortage worse and further jeopardize the ability of Florida’s children to receive a quality education that they desperately deserve.”
Florida’s education commissioner Manny Diaz, a former state representative who sponsored the so-called “Stop WOKE” Act, or Individual Freedom bill in 2022, celebrated the barriers unions will face under the new law.
“Teachers [have] the right to control their own salaries and transparency and what’s taken out of their paychecks. They work very hard every day, but it does us no good to increase the salaries that we’re going to allow these things to be taken out of their paychecks in the dark,” said Diaz. “And so we’re making [it] harder today for unions to take those out of those paychecks and for at least for teachers to understand what’s being taken.”
Bill sponsors Blaise Ingoglia and Dean Black claimed the legislation was actually pro-union (deviating from DeSantis’ script, in which he railed against the unions) and that it would strengthen unions by requiring union staffers to do more to engage and grow their membership.
“No one’s being targeted here,” said Rep. Black, a Republican who attended the Tuesday bill signing, on the Florida House last month. “Unions are being helped workers are being protected.”
But not all teachers feel “protected” by the legislation.
Gretchen Robinson, an Orange County teacher for over 20 years, told Orlando Weekly in March she saw the bill as one designed to “kill” her union, which represents thousands of teachers across the Democratic-leaning county in Central Florida.
During public testimony on the bill prior to its passage, several teachers from across the state — including self-described conservatives from redder counties — testified that the bill would infringe on their freedoms and their right to do what they wish with their paychecks.
“This bill undercuts the goal of ensuring strong schools by making it harder for educators to join and advocate for their students,” said one teacher, who described the bill as “anti-freedom legislation” during public testimony on the legislation last month.
“This bill sends a message that experienced educators are not valued,” he added. “Beyond undermining educators, this bill also is a direct attack on nurses, transportation workers, emergency dispatchers and many other working peoples’ sacrifices that [keep] Florida safe and prosperous.”
Chris Payne, a self-described Republican teacher of 32 years from Nassau County, joined others in asking lawmakers to stop dictating what they can and cannot do with their paychecks. “It’s not big enough anyway, so don’t tell me what to do with it.”
Florida ranks near dead last nationwide in average teacher pay, although DeSantis has repeatedly promised to increase starting salaries for teachers since he was first elected Governor in 2018.
As it is, Florida workers aren’t required to pay union dues in order to benefit from a union contract at their workplace. So the bill (SB 256) specifically makes it harder for workers who have already signed up for union membership of their own volition to continue financially supporting their union
Meanwhile, other voluntary deductions from employees’ paychecks would still be permitted.
“The intention is to make it harder for our members to remain part of their union and to make it more inconvenient for others to join the union,” David Freeland, with the St. Lucie Education Association, told his local school board in at an April meeting, according to a typed speech shared with Orlando Weekly.
Freeland added that the school district would still be able to deduct other voluntary deductions, like a gym membership.
“This is by design, even though the Florida Constitution guarantees us the right to belong to a union and to bargain for a decent wage and good working conditions,” Freeland added.
Florida is the only state in the U.S. South with collective bargaining rights enshrined in its state constitution, along with its right-to-work policy. Union leaders have warned that the bill could undermine those constitutionally protected rights by making it harder for public sector unions to survive in Florida, and by complicating dues collection.
Some unions, particularly teachers unions, have been proactive in urging their members to sign up for an alternative dues payment system, and in some cases offering incentives for members to do so or to recruit new members to the union.
Under the legislation, unions will be required to maintain a membership threshold of at least 60% of workers eligible in order to be able to bargain for salary increases and other improvements to working conditions. Unions that fall below that would have to petition for recertification.
Unions that are decertified could face the loss of a union contract, and consequently, benefits afforded to workers that employers otherwise aren’t contractually obligated to provide.
As it is, teachers unions in the state are already required to maintain a membership (or participation rate) of 50% under a 2018 law.
Alongside the bill targeting public sector unions, DeSantis also signed other education bills into law on Tuesday, including legislation that cracks down on TikTok in schools, pumps more money into teacher pay increases (although state law currently restricts how that can be allocated, particularly for longtime teachers), and a “Teachers Bill of Rights” that, in addition to the union bill, accomplishes aspects of a proposal he released in January.
This is a developing story. If you have thoughts on this bill that you would like to share with us, contact reporter McKenna Schueler at [email protected].
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