Florida fires back on public-employee union restrictions

Law applies to most public-employee unions but exempts unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters

Click Orlando | By Jim Saunders | June 13, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With a federal judge poised to hear arguments next week, the state is fighting an attempt to block key parts of a new law that places additional restrictions on public-employee unions.

Attorneys for the state filed a 66-page document Friday urging Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to reject a request by teachers unions to issue a preliminary injunction against parts of the law that include preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.

The document said the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is “the latest in Florida’s long history of regulating the terms of public employment” and makes “modest changes.”

“Its purpose is to ensure that public employees are aware of their rights to join (or not join) their unions and their rights to pay (or not pay) dues to those unions,” the document, a memorandum of law, said. “It also ensures that public employees have some understanding of how their unions use those dues. Public employees are often not aware of these issues.”

But the lawsuit, filed last month by the Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida, the Alachua County teachers union and the University of Florida faculty union, alleges that the law violates First Amendment, equal-protection and contract rights.

For example, the unions are seeking a preliminary injunction against part of the law (SB 256) that requires specific information to be included on union membership forms.

“(The section of the law), by compelling disfavored unions to convey a prominent, government-drafted, 91-word ‘right-to-work’ affirmation in the membership authorization forms that they present to prospective members, and compelling those public employees who desire to become members of disfavored unions to sign that affirmation, violates the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit said.

Walker has scheduled a June 23 hearing on the preliminary injunction request. The unions also are seeking to block the part of the law barring payroll dues deductions, saying, in part, that it violates existing contracts.

The lawsuit names as defendants members of the Florida Employees Relations Commission, which will carry out the law.

DeSantis and teachers unions have repeatedly clashed about education policies, and the unions were key supporters last year of DeSantis’ election opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist.

The law applies to most public-employee unions but exempts unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters, which have supported DeSantis and other Republicans politically. The lawsuit raises equal-protection arguments because the restrictions do not apply across-the-board to unions.

But in the document Friday, attorneys for the state wrote that the “exemption accords with longstanding Florida policy that distinguishes between different types of public employees.”

“For example, police, corrections officers, and firefighters have special rights during misconduct investigations,” the document said. “Police and fire departments are also exempt from certain age discrimination laws. And state agencies may pay attorney’s fees only for law enforcement officers, correctional officers, or probation officers if they are sued for on-duty conduct.”

The document also disputed the unions’ constitutional arguments targeting the parts of the law dealing with dues deductions. It said unions can use other platforms to collect dues and that the law does not impair contracts.

“(The law) does not bar the plaintiffs from receiving dues; it bars them only from receiving dues via government-administered paychecks,” the document said. “Plaintiffs are still owed the dues. Members can pay those dues just like they pay countless other bills every day. And if members miss any payments, plaintiffs are still entitled to recover them from their members.”

Attorneys for the state also disputed that the required information on union membership forms violates the First Amendment, saying it “contains only government speech and, even if it did compel any speech, it is reasonably related to the state’s interest in ensuring public employees are fully aware of their rights.”

While Walker considers the request for a preliminary injunction, a separate challenge to the law has been filed in Leon County circuit court by unions representing city workers in South Florida. That challenge argues, in part, that the law violates collective-bargaining rights under the Florida Constitution.

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