Unions Brace for Tough Session

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL - The Florida Legislature is poised to pass bills that tie teacher pay to test scores, mandate that public employees contribute to their pensions and health care, and eliminate automatic payroll deductions for union fees. The one common thread in all of these proposals? Unions.

During a time when unions are under attack in a half-dozen other states, the Florida Legislature is considering a wide range of proposals that impact union members.

While organized labor has so far protested mildly, unions ratcheted up their criticism on Monday.

The teachers union criticized the Legislature’s attempts to stifle unions and protesters showed up at a Senate Community Affairs Committee with their mouths taped shut, a nod to Senate Bill 830, a bill that eliminates the ability of unions to deduct fees automatically from a worker’s paycheck. It also prohibits unions from using worker dues to finance political committees.

The Senate Community Affairs Committee ran out of time before allowing public testimony on the bill Monday.

“The taxpayers in the state of Florida are basically saying ‘Let’s get out of the business of collecting dues for union members, let the unions do it themselves,’ ” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the bill’s sponsor. “Why should we be collecting anybody’s dues?”

The decision to postpone consideration of the bill angered members of the Fraternal Order of Police and other unions. They sought out reporters after the committee adjourned to vent their frustration.

Mike Kelley, a Palm Beach County-based police officer, said he drove eight hours to protest the bill, taking vacation time to do so. He won’t be able to return next week.

“Did you see how full the gallery was? Did you see how many people came hundreds and hundreds of miles to come speak?” Kelley said. “I took vacation to come here and do this, my own time.”

Jeff McAdams, president of the Gainesville chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police said whatever is deducted from his paycheck is his own money and has nothing to do with taxpayers.“We need to call it what it is, it is union-busting, it is union-busting 101 and we are not going to stand for it,” McAdams said.

The proposal that was shelved in the Senate committee is just one of several that target unions.

Another proposal (HB 1023) would require recertification of unions with membership below 50 percent of the employees they represent. Law enforcement and firefighter unions are exempted.

Besides the bills that specifically target unions, many of the Florida Legislature’s high-priority bills impact union members, such as teachers, firefighters, university professors, and state workers.

Many of these bills are poised for a quick passage. The education reform bill that ties teacher pay to test scores was fast-tracked through committees and is up for debate in the Florida Senate Wednesday.
The education reform bill (SB 736) requires school districts to set up an evaluation system that rates teachers. Half of those evaluations would be based on test scores, and the bill allows districts to permanently put new hires on one-year contracts instead of the longer-term agreements in place now.

Scott Whittle, a Tallahassee-area teacher who was at the Capitol Monday to protest the Senate bill that eliminates payroll deduction for union dues, suggested that the raft of bills targeting them are all payback for the failure of last year’s failed attempt to tie teacher pay to test scores.

“This is retribution,” Whittle said. When asked by reporters if SB 830 was political payback, Thrasher scoffed at the notion, saying he’s happy with this year’s version of the teacher merit pay bill.

Some business lobby groups, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, have suggested that Florida should brace for Wisconsin-style protests. But unions say that is unlikely to happen because of state laws that essentially prohibit strikes by allowing fines or the termination of workers that participate in them.

The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers and other public school employees, says teachers who choose to participate in rallies or demonstrations do so during evenings, weekends, or vacations.“We get the message…that we shouldn’t be striking and we are not going to,” said Ron Meyer, a lobbyist whose client is the Florida Education Association. “Don’t confuse that as rolling over and accepting what is happening to public employees.”

Florida AFL-CIO, a statewide coalition of local labor unions that organized the small protest outside the Senate committee, said workers are being targeted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“The amount of really hard-hitting, far-reaching policies, and the amount of legislation that has already passed through the committee process and is already waiting to be debated on the House floor and on the Senate floor is unprecedented,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin. “They are going very rapidly.”

Templin said previous attempts to weaken unions “didn’t get very far.”

Meanwhile, rallies are planned for Tuesday in Tallahassee and across the state, designed to distract from the first day of the legislative session. The “Awake the State” rallies were organized by unions and progressive groups. Conservative tea party groups are also planning counter-protests.

Legislative leaders appeared unruffled by Tuesday’s protests.

“This is America, people have every right to protest positively or negatively,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “It’s exciting people are taking such an interest in their government and want to be vocal about where they stand.” He said legislative business wouldn’t be impacted by protests.

Most union groups are reticent to suggest that bills to weaken unions are politically motivated, though the Florida Education Association said in a statement last month that it is tantamount to political retribution.

Democrats have long counted on the support of unions to finance their campaigns. Last year, unions were vocal in their support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink. She lost to Gov. Rick Scott, who has indicated his support for efforts to weaken the power of unions.

“These attacks on public servants’ right to collectively bargain are nothing more than a thinly veiled Republican campaign strategy,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who sits on the House State Affairs Committee that will take up many of the bills impacting unions.

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  • by Lumpy Location: Tampa MSA on Mar 10, 2011 at 02:09 PM
    If you are wealthy, if you can afford out-of-your pocket all health related expenses for your children and yourself, if you can afford a $375 labor lawyer when you have been mistreated by your employer, if you are the haves and don't care about the have nots, then you are not going to support Labor Unions. True Americans, we must stand together, or we will return to the days of the "Old South" and the "Old Cuba". Let us, all of us, protect America. If we don't, people who are angry, vindictive, money hungry, and can afford to jump ship if the country goes down into Sheol, will destroy her. There are those who say they want their country back, their Country. Leaving the rest of us out. I fear these fascist and so should you. This country was founded by those fleeing persecution and maintained by those who refuse to allow her to be destroyed by evil doers. I vote for the right to choose democracy. Let us all stand together and support Labor Unions: People Governing. TIA-This is America
  • by if Location: nf on Mar 8, 2011 at 09:58 AM
    'good' broken knuckle your wants are easy, run for office and get elected like they did and the same benefits will be yours also good luck.
  • by employee choice Location: Tallahassee on Mar 8, 2011 at 09:17 AM
    If the state allows automatic deductions for the annual charity campaign, where all are "encouraged" to participate, then why can't deductions be allowed for union dues -- when it is the employee's choice?
  • by keith stone Location: on the shelf on Mar 8, 2011 at 08:41 AM
    My last words to a Consolidated Freightways driver as he was pulling his last load....He found out it was his last load by "CB radio"..."I hope that 50 cents/hr(over my pay)and that union representation works well for you, good luck." He took it well as he proclaimed "we didn't need the last raise we received knowing the company was being sucked dry." Once the equipment(tractors and trailers) was not being replaced or updated and raises were given; we knew CFWY was going down.
  • by IReadyou Location: Tallahassee on Mar 8, 2011 at 05:37 AM
    Unions used to serve a good purpose. But there is a life cycle to organizations same as with people and animals. Orgs deteriorate with age. Unions got complacenet and are corrupt. What remains of unions is primarily there to serve the union bosses. The staff of the teachers employee unions have better pay and benies than their rank and file members. But if the members are doing well they don't care. Now the members are taking hits, they may start asking questions about what's going on in Union HQ. But even if unions are cut in half again there are still enough dues coming in for the HQ staff to continue living large if the mbrs allow it. As long as HQ staff are living well, one wonders if they will see the light in terms of where they are compared to where the people are. The economic tide went out on the middle class and left them beached. Now the public union pay and benies "look" rich to everyone because the private sector has lost so much. It's the race to the bottom.
  • by Libertarian on Mar 8, 2011 at 04:50 AM
    Hopefully this uniopn backlash will make the unions a little more reasonable in what they demand. I do not however support the current push to get rid of unions. They are really the only protection we have from the wealthy company owners running over the working men and women of our country. If all companies were really "pro - wroker" we wouldn;t have needed unions in the firat place. The basics of human nature and business demand higher profits either through increased sales or cheaper labor practices. Since you really can't force your sales go up it's always easier to start cutting more and more from your workers until eventually you create intolerable circumstances. Workers have to work to stay alive so they end up getting the shaft and having to take it - until they decide to form a union that is.
  • by Be Real Location: Tallahassee on Mar 8, 2011 at 01:07 AM
    I am a retired director of one of of the three largest non-union companies in America. There has never been a single successful union organization within my company. The secret is simple. We provide better salaries, benefits and pensions up front. We never accept the Union's main desire to " check off " wherein dues are deducted directly from paychecks of hard working people. My companies are not anti union but rather pro worker. It is an emprircal fact that unions use pension funds to enrich their family and friends to the detriment od the contributors. I will gladly debate this with data from exckusive union files Unions are in business to protect themselves and rarely work for the common person. It is imperative that we all work together. We should work for the commongood and not provide our stake in pensions to be gambled with by relatives of local union leaders. Need I remind us of Tony Provenzano in Florida? In Tampa he was know as Tony Pro. John Gotti?
  • by BrokenKnuckle Location: Florida on Mar 7, 2011 at 08:29 PM
    I want the same benefits that ALL elected officals receive.
  • by disabled union member on Mar 7, 2011 at 08:26 PM
    Most of the budget problems have been caused by politicians and hired department heads that work for them. Add to that the improper funding of colleges by Legislators and taxcuts. Right2Work claims unions use strong-arm tactics but fails to mention that anti-union groups regularly employ tactics of fear, threats of job loss, reduction in pay at the discression of any employer all to keep employees pay low to increase the profit for the owner or company. I hope this state does NOT follow the same path the Governor of Wisconsin and Ohio are going. If so many do not want to be treated fairly or have income & benefit stability or know you will be treated like a person and not a servant - then stay nonunion. There are many who chose collective bargaining to improve themselves and better living conditions for them and their families. Guess what, many nonunion companies and contractors charge the same to customers that union companies do only difference is the share that goes to the employer
  • by Right2Work Location: Phoenix on Mar 7, 2011 at 07:15 PM
    Anyone in support of unions' strong-arm tactics should read Job Killers: The American Dream in Reverse. Not only will they change their opinions of how unions work for the people, they'll be sick to their stomach. I was on the fence about unions before reading this book. Now, I am most definitely AGAIST unions and what they stand for.
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