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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