How Florida teacher unions are coping with a new anti-union law
Florida Phoenix | By Christian Casale | September 28, 2023
As a “right-to-work” state, Florida’s Constitution says that the “right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in any labor union or labor organization.”
However, legislation signed into law in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis aims directly at unions for public employees, including one of his favorite political targets: teacher unions.
SB256 included a bundle of other education reforms that Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. called the most comprehensive package of pro-educator bills in the history of Florida, and probably in the history of the United States.
The education unions, however, disagree and say that the law is a naked attempt to weaken their bargaining power.
“For far too long, unions and rogue school boards have pushed around our teachers, misused government funds for political purposes, taken money from teachers’ pockets to steer it for purposes other than representation of teachers, and sheltered their true political goals from the educators they purport to represent,” DeSantis said in a press statement.
The law, which took effect July 1, sets additional limits and regulations upon unions for public employees – with exceptions for law enforcement officers and firefighters. Public sector unions are now barred from receiving their members’ dues straight from paycheck deductions. Now, teachers must manually begin to pay their dues to their union.
Unions also cannot be recertified if less than 60% of employees eligible to join aren’t dues-paying members, and a new complication in collections dues makes it harder for unions to retain members.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said this is no coincidence.
“It is intended to make it harder for unions to exist; it is a very costly process,” Spar said. “It doesn’t just cost us; it costs the taxpayers.”
A bill analysis in March from the Senate’s Fiscal Policy committee found that every county’s teacher union had a 50% or higher proportion of eligible employees paying dues, except one – Santa Rosa County. With the threshold raised to 60%, any union that doesn’t clear the new requirement must appeal to the state to hold an election. According to Spar, the costs of an election are split between the union and the school district.
“It’s meant to keep unions – and really the employees – from being able to have a powerful voice because we’re constantly having to spin our wheels and jumping through all these hoops,” Spar said.
The new regulations would be overseen by the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission – a three-member body all appointed by Gov. DeSantis. The PERC is authorized to inspect membership authorization forms and membership revocation forms and collect more information on participation from unions.
Spar said that PERC had been charged with adopting rules before the law was implemented, but he feels they haven’t been able to deliver. He said an example is the vagueness of how unions are meant to comply with a new requirement to submit to an annual audit by a certified public accountant.
“We have a problem right now trying to find certified public accountants who are willing to do this work, especially willing to do this work for fees for which the local unions can afford it,” Spar said. “It’s punitive, anti-business, anti-American and we believe, of course, it’s illegal.”
The FEA, along with the Alachua County Education Association and the United Faculty of Florida, filed a federal lawsuit against SB256 in May, saying it “violates educators’ rights to freedom of speech and association under the First Amendment and equal protection of laws under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
The lawsuit is ongoing, but a Leon County circuit judge refused to block the part of the law barring automatic payroll deductions in June.
The PERC did not respond to a request for comment. An information sheet on its website says that an employee organization unable to complete an audited financial statement “may request an extension of time to file the audited financial statement. Such request should specify the amount of time needed to obtain the audited statement and must demonstrate ‘good cause’ for granting the request.”
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said the prohibition on payroll deduction has forced her organization to find time-consuming alternatives to collect dues – such as paper checks or recurring bank payments.
“There’s been payroll deduction in Broward County for decades for multiple things,” Fusco said. “We’re technically the only entity in Broward unable to still have payroll deduction.”
While the Broward union has been recertified, Fusco said the idea that members weren’t aware of what was coming out of their paychecks was a “false narrative,” wrapped up in recent culture war flashpoints such as book bans and expanded vouchers.
“Unfortunately, our governor just keeps coming in every type of way, and whatever doesn’t seem to fit his narrative, he wants to dissolve,” Fusco said.
The unions’ concerns come at a time when labor organizations nationwide have been using their power to strike — which isn’t allowed in Florida. The state’s Constitution says “public employees shall not have the right to strike.”
Currently, United Auto Workers are on the picket lines — joined by President Joe Biden — hoping to secure a new contract with double-digit pay raises.
Meanwhile, “pharmacists in at least a dozen Kansas City-area CVS pharmacies did not show up for work last Thursday and Friday and planned to be out again this Wednesday until the company sent its chief pharmacy officer with promises to fill open positions and increase staffing levels,” according to the Associated Press.
And Wednesday, the writer’s strike that shut down Hollywood ended 148 days after demands for more equitable compensation were met.