Florida school employee unions ‘already suffering’ from new law on dues

Tampa Bay Times | By News Service of Florida | July 24, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Saying unions are starting to get hit financially, teachers unions — including two from the Tampa Bay area — are again asking a federal judge to block part of a new state law that prevents dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.Unions that represent public school employees and university faculty members have filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction against the dues-deduction ban, which took effect July 1. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last month declined to issue an injunction, but the unions revised the lawsuit and the injunction request.

“Plaintiffs are already suffering from a reduction in irreplaceable revenue that is about to get much worse,” the unions argued in a legal memorandum that accompanied the motion, filed last week.

The unions contend the dues-deduction ban unconstitutionally violates contracts that require payroll dues deductions. Those contracts were reached before the new law took effect.

“The core function of the (U.S. Constitution’s) Contracts Clause is to guard against an especially pernicious type of retroactive legislation: that which destroys citizens’ ability to rely on the protection of contractual commitments to plan their affairs, including in particular their financial affairs,” the memorandum said.

The dues-deduction change was part of a law that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved this spring to place additional restrictions on public-employee unions. Among other things, the law requires union members to fill out new government-worded membership forms and will require unions to be recertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60% of eligible employees are members.

The law exempted unions that represent law enforcement officers, firefighters and correctional officers, which have politically supported DeSantis and other Republicans. DeSantis and teachers unions have repeatedly clashed about education policies, and the Florida Education Association was a key supporter last year of DeSantis’ election opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist.

Republican supporters said the law (SB 256) would bring greater transparency to public-employee unions, but critics described it as “union busting.”

Among the plaintiffs in the revised version of the lawsuit, filed July 14, are the Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida, the Alachua County Education Association, the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and Hernando United School Workers. Defendants include members of the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, members of the University of Florida Board of Trustees and the school boards in Alachua, Pinellas and Hernando counties.

An initial version of the case was filed in May against the Public Employees Relations Commission, which is responsible for carrying out the law. But in a June 26 decision, Walker wrote that issuing an injunction against the dues-deduction ban would “offer no redress for plaintiffs’ injuries.”

Walker said that even if he issued an injunction against the members of the Public Employees Relations Commission, government agencies would comply with the law and stop deducting dues from paychecks.

“Employers who are party to plaintiffs’ collective bargaining agreements will still be prohibited by law from deducting membership dues from their employees’ salaries, regardless of whether this court enjoins defendants (Public Employees Relations Commission members) from enforcing the prohibition against employers,” Walker wrote.

To try to address that issue, lawyers for the unions said the University of Florida and the Hernando County School Board — two new defendants — stopped deducting and sending dues to unions on July 1. Some union members at the university and Hernando district get paid year-round, while many teachers across the state are paid over 10 months. Those paychecks will resume in August.

“Once K-12 teachers return to work and begin to draw salary, plaintiff unions will face the full brunt of the loss of membership dues that had been paid via payroll deduction — exactly at the time when union resources are most in need,” the memorandum of law said.

The motion focuses on an alleged breach of existing contracts, with the unions acknowledging they would not be able to have payroll dues deductions after the contracts expire.

“Plaintiffs, after all, are not seeking in this motion to forever forestall the state’s planned prohibition of payroll deduction,” the union lawyers wrote. “All the plaintiffs seek is a reasonable period of the time — the remainder of their unexpired contracts — to adjust to a sea change in the way public employee unions are financed in Florida.”

The lawsuit is one of at least three filed by unions challenging the new law. A union representing government workers in Duval County filed a federal lawsuit last week, while three municipal unions in South Florida have filed a challenge in Leon County circuit court.

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