In a gut punch to workers across Florida, the Republican-controlled Florida House gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill that’s designed to undercut most of the state’s public sector unions, allowing Florida’s public employees to become collateral damage in a corporate-backed war against public sector bargaining that’s over a decade old.
CS/CS/SB 256, which imposes new requirements on public employee unions, could affect over 150,000 working Floridians who are represented by unions, including public educators, school counselors, municipal workers, public healthcare workers and a whole host of other frontline workers lauded as “heroes” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unions representing cops, firefighters, corrections and probation officers would be exempted from most of its provisions, having been categorized by the Republican bill sponsors as belonging to a “special risk category.”
The bill, named “Employee Organizations Representing Public Employees” but described as “anti-freedom legislation” by critics, was passed in a 72-44 vote on Wednesday, largely along party lines with Democrats opposed and some Republicans crossing party lines to vote it down.
It now heads to the desk of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature, after getting Senate approval earlier this month.
It would also require public employee unions to reach or maintain a 60% membership rate among eligible employees — or risk facing decertification, and consequently, the loss of a union contract.
“We know what this is really about: crushing unions and crushing the workers of Florida”
Because Florida’s a right to work state, you don’t have to be a dues-paying union member to be covered by a union contract, which commonly includes agreements on things such as scheduled raises, health benefits, retirement savings plans, and scheduling.
Union workers say that this ability to be a free rider of sorts, not having to financially support your union’s activities in order to benefit from it — particularly in professions already fighting for fair wages — makes it difficult to reach or maintain a 60% membership rate.
“That’s kind of a high bar when we’ve got so many teachers leaving the profession,” Gretchen Robinson, a public school teacher in Orange County, previously told Orlando Weekly.
Her union, as of a couple months ago, had a membership rate of about 54%, according to Orange County teachers union president Clinton McCracken.
On the House floor just one day before its passage, House bill sponsor Rep. Dean Black — who previously admitted he’s not sure if he’s ever been a union member — said any union can reach 60% “if you work really hard.”
But we’ve got it covered: Lawmakers have agreed to earmark $905,580 in state funds specifically to cover the administrative costs of the bill’s implementation.
An earlier version of the legislation would have also affected the state’s public transit workers.
But after transit unions warned it could risk the state over $500 million in federal mass transit funds, they (like the cops and firefighters) were permitted a carve-out, too. They do have to go through a process of asking their respective transit agencies (in Orlando, Lynx) to petition the state commission that manages public sector labor relations for a waiver.
While similar legislation, often pushed by business groups, has been proposed in the state of Florida and elsewhere across the country since 2011, the bill’s passage this year was made more likely by a supermajority of Republicans who’ve acquiesced to the political priorities of DeSantis.
“If you look at it, it is a pro-employer — excuse me, pro-employee piece of legislation,” Ingoglia said in front of a Senate committee last month, earning laughter before quickly correcting his Freudian slip.
The legislation is supported by conservative groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the Freedom Foundation, and the Opportunity Solutions Project, a lobbying arm for a conservative think tank based here in Florida that’s behind a national push to deregulate child labor.
But its passage didn’t come without a fight by Democrats.
Not to mention the dozens of union members who traveled to Tallahassee from across the state (including self-described conservatives) to try to convince, well, mostly the legislature’s Republican supermajority to vote no.
A failed attempt to soften the blow
“We are the working class,” one Orlando union worker and self-described Republican who’s exempted from the legislation, told lawmakers during one of the bill’s committee stops this month.
“There is a line,” he insisted passionately, pounding his fist on the podium. “Do not cross it.”
In front of the Florida House, Democratic State Rep. Robin Bartleman told her colleagues Tuesday, “We know what this is really about: crushing unions and crushing the workers of Florida.”
This comment came in defense of an amendment to the bill that would have extended the bill’s implementation date a full year, to July of 2024.
Currently, the bill’s ban on payroll deductions of union dues goes into effect on July 1 of 2023, and the 60% membership and audited financial statement requirements will be effective Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, Florida House Republicans rejected their Democratic colleagues’ attempts to soften the blow of the bill, through four amendments. One amendment, for instance, would have reduced the membership threshold to 50% (which would have made it more similar to a bill that died last year).
That would have been a relief for Florida’s teacher and faculty unions, which are already required to maintain a 50% membership threshold under a controversial bill signed into law by former Governor Rick Scott in 2018.
Another amendment would have exempted unions with less than $250,000 in annual expenditures and revenues from the bill’s annual audited financial statement requirements.
This was seemingly in response to a concern shared by Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, a certified public accountant by trade, who shared on the Senate floor that this requirement could pose a significant financial barrier for smaller unions, due to the steep expense.
A supervisor secretary for the Nassau County school board shared a similar concern earlier this month, telling lawmakers that requirement would “bankrupt” her union.
Another amendment, filed by Tampa Rep. Fentrice Driskell, would have added emergency medical technicians to the laundry list of public employees whose unions would be exempted by the bill.
Driskell, the daughter of a public school teacher who grew up in a union household, argued that EMTs are just as likely as cops and firefighters to rush into a dangerous, high-stakes situations (so are teachers, for that matter, if you’ve read anything about school shootings) and should be afforded the same classification as a “special risk category.”
All four amendments, discussed at the tail end of an eight-hour House session, were swiftly rejected by the House’s Republican majority.
“This bill is good for workers, and it will be good for the unions,” said Rep. Black, the bill sponsor, prior to the bill’s passage on Wednesday. “The union will be made better, will be made stronger, more transparent, more responsive.”
Yet actual union members have said otherwise, telling lawmakers if the bill doesn’t decertify their union, it at the very least infringes on their perceived right to pay their union dues how they wish.
“Don’t tell me how to handle my paycheck,” Chris Payne, a Republican teacher of 32 years and a former soldier from Nassau County, told lawmakers during one of the bill’s committee stops. “It’s not big enough anyway, so don’t tell me what to do with it.”
Union leaders have said the bill violates Floridians’ right to collectively bargain, which (like right-to-work) is enshrined in the state’s constitution.
Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani, who previously said she’d “rather die” than vote for the bill, called it un-American.
An anti-union Kentucky bill last month was vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor (in part echoing the same concern from the transit unions here), but the divided state legislature subsequently voted to override it.
Meanwhile, a bill that would gut living wage ordinances in Orlando and other Florida municipalities is also being considered by lawmakers, as are attacks on Florida’s public education system, piecing together a rapidly advancing anti-worker agenda.
A Democratic-sponsored bill to reestablish a previously-dismantled state Department of Labor in Florida languishes, and wage theft in Florida remains rampant, in part because that’s what the state labor department was equipped to handle.
Private sector unions in Orlando, representing Disney World workers for instance, are faring better, although there’s still some union-busting afoot by at least one private employer elsewhere.