Inside the ‘big mess’ facing Florida teachers’ unions

POLITICO | By Kimberly Leonard | November 23, 2023

Good morning and welcome to Tuesday.

Florida’s teachers’ unions are scrambling under a new law that makes it harder for them to stay in existence.

Ever since October, unions must show that 60 percent of eligible school employees are paying dues. If they can’t, they need to collect signed cards from roughly a third of members who attest they want to be represented by the union. Then, they hold an election.

This’ll happen every year. And if they don’t meet the new requirements, they risk losing their labor contracts and can’t bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions and have to start all over on recertifying their union. Unions complain the whole ordeal is confusing, expensive and elaborate.

Adding to the hurdles is that unions aren’t allowed to automatically deduct dues from pay checks anymore, and they’ve had a hard time getting some teachers to agree to pay their dues through a new payment site they created as a backup. Soon, they’ll have to pay for new, state-mandated audits.

The Florida Education Association sees the effort as a broader move to undermine public schools, placing the state’s anti-union law in the same category as taxpayer-funded vouchers that students can use to attend private schools or making it easier for families to challenge books.

“Gov. DeSantis decided that he needed an enemy to run for president and was going to make the teacher’s unions his enemies,” said the group’s president, Andrew Spar.

Teachers aren’t the only unions affected, but they’re the largest. They’ve also been a DeSantis target ever since they opposed the governor’s plan to reopen schools during the pandemic, sooner than teachers thought it safe. The governor’s office has framed the new law as beneficial for teachers, saying they — and not unions — should be able to keep more of their paychecks after the state increased salaries.

“Our state’s teachers should not feel compelled or bullied into joining a group that does not represent them or their interests,” said DeSantis’ spokesperson Jeremy Redfern.

Every school district has a different deadline to meet the 60 percent threshold, and many of them, with months to go, are already dreading it. One is the Madison County Education Association, a small local union that is about 20 percentage points behind where it needs to be. It’ll be hosting a trivia night and meal next month to get more teachers interested in membership.

“I’m really worried and it’s extremely time consuming,” said Caulette Hicks, the group’s president who also teaches high-school English full time. “The only way I know how to do it is to go before every person and do it.” She predicted she’d have to take time off work to meet the requirements, despite severe staff shortages.

United Teachers of Dade, the largest teacher’s union in the state, is waiting to see whether it’s set for the year, the Miami Herald reported. Lee Bryant, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association who also shared his experience with the Tampa Bay Times, told Playbook the whole process was a “big mess” and that he was working to collect far above the 2,000 cards required, though he’s facing headwinds from the forthcoming holidays.

“I don’t see [Gov. DeSantis] changing,” Bryant said. “I don’t see the state Legislature changing unless citizens elect more labor-loving individuals.”

The Public Employees Relations Commission, which monitors labor and employment issues, has held numerous public hearings, meetings and workshops to help unions get ready for the new law, said the commission’s chair, Donald Rubottom, who noted that groups have been aware of the requirements since the law passed in May. He cast the challenges as growing pains, said the commission was there to help and predicted teachers’ unions would be able to hit the new requirements. “We don’t expect any of them to fail at it,” he said.

— WHERE’S RON? Gov. DeSantis is doing events in New Hampshire with Never Back Down, the PAC supporting his presidency, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is joining him for a noon appearance. Florida first lady Casey DeSantis will be at Never Back Down events in Iowa.

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