Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) could head into the GOP presidential primary against Donald Trump with a shiny new conservative credential: destroyer of public-sector labor unions.
Republicans in the Sunshine State are moving ahead with legislation designed to make it harder for government employee unions to collect dues and, well, to exist at all. The bill cleared the GOP-dominated state Senate in Tallahassee last week, despite several Republican lawmakers joining their Democratic colleagues and voting against it.
The bill has not yet passed the state House, which is also under solid GOP command, and it must make it through committee before reaching the House floor. DeSantis, who’s leading a broad attack on what he claims is “wokeism” in education, has publicly backed the bill as it relates to teachers unions.
Unions and their Democratic allies have managed to keep the grab bag of anti-labor provisions at bay for several years. But now they are alarmed — and furious — at the legislation’s advance.
Adding to their fury is the fact that Senate Republicans included a carveout to the bill that protects unions representing police, firefighters and corrections officers — that is, unions more likely to politically support Republicans.
In its current form, the bill would affect teachers, school support staff, bus drivers, janitors and sanitation workers, parks and library employees and others across the public sector whose unions tend to support Democrats.
“The goal of the bill is to eliminate collective bargaining for public-sector workers who the governor doesn’t like,” said Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy at the Florida AFL-CIO labor federation. “Nobody that’s directly involved has asked for this. This is another in a very long line of policies being advanced solely for the governor’s run for the White House.”
Unions are right to find the mechanics of the bill troubling.
The main provision would bar unions representing teachers and other public-sector workers from deducting dues through workers’ paychecks. That’s the primary way workers pay their union dues now. They also use it to pay health insurance premiums, gym memberships and a slew of other deductions that employers allow. Ending it would force unions to create new dues-collection mechanisms, like setting workers up for ACH transfers through their banks.
“The goal of the bill is to eliminate collective bargaining for public-sector workers who the governor doesn’t like.”
– Rich Templin, Florida AFL-CIO
Republicans have pursued bans on paycheck dues deduction in several states in recent years, casting it as “paycheck protection” for workers — teachers, in particular — against rapacious unions. They succeeded in Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama and Indiana. A federal judge recently blocked the Indiana law from taking effect after teachers unions sued on the grounds the law violated their constitutional right to freedom of association.
The loss of “dues checkoff,” as paycheck deductions are known, is not necessarily calamitous for a union. But as an organizer once wrote in the publication Labor Notes, it creates a “new layer of convincing” when trying to sign a worker up for the union, even one who supports the cause: “Not only must the member or staff organizer move the worker into action, but we also have to convince them to give us their damn bank info!”
What sets the Florida legislation apart is how the dues-deduction ban could work in tandem with a second anti-union provision.
Florida has long been a “right-to-work” state where no worker can be required to pay fees to a union, even if they enjoy the benefits of a union contract. (The entire U.S. public sector is now right to work, courtesy of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.) But in 2018, under then-Gov. Rick Scott, Republicans added another challenge for the state’s teachers unions: If the number of dues-paying members in a bargaining unit fell below 50%, a process would begin whereby the union could be “decertified,” or purged and its contract nullified.
As part of their new proposal, Republicans would apply that decertification threshold to public-sector unions writ large, and raise it from 50% to 60%. So as unions lost members due to the payroll deduction ban, they could more easily fall in danger of being decertified — unless they represent cops, firefighters or corrections officers.
“It’s pretty clear this is political retribution,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, a union with more than 150,000 members. Of the unions carved out, Spar said, “I have a lot of friends in those unions, but those unions have supported Gov. DeSantis.”
HuffPost asked Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, sponsor of the bill, what the logic was for including a carveout for certain unions that happen to lean conservative. A spokesperson pointed to a Senate committee hearing in which Ingoglia said cops and firefighters are “putting their lives on the line every day.”
“They may go to work and not know if they’re coming home that night,” Ingoglia said March 16. “So if you’re getting rid of payroll deduction, then you’re forcing a face-to-face conversation with the employees and their union representatives … I would have a hard time telling law enforcement who worked an overnight from 12 to 8 that she or he would have to not get any sleep and meet their union representative at 11 a.m. to give them their check.”
HuffPost asked a follow-up question: If this bill is really about “protecting” workers’ paychecks, don’t our heroes deserve the same protections that other workers are afforded under the bill? The spokesperson did not respond.
A spokesperson for DeSantis would not say whether the governor supports the carveout for cops and firefighters, recommending HuffPost steer questions to the bill’s backers in the legislature. In a press conference where he promoted “paycheck protection,” DeSantis spoke of it solely in relation to teachers unions.
“Since this legislation is still subject to the legislative process (and therefore different iterations), the governor will decide on the merits of the bill in final form if and when it passes and is delivered to the governor’s office,” said the spokesperson, Jeremy T. Redfern.
It is not clear how the legislation’s backers arrived specifically at 60% as an appropriate threshold below which a union would have to apply for recertification with the state. After all, there is a certain logic to the current 50% marker, above which the dues-paying members represent a majority.
Spar, of the FEA, said he believes he knows how 60% was chosen.
“We know he [DeSantis] had his staff call around the state to find out where all the teachers unions were in membership, and he found out they all were over 50%, with many in the upper 50s and quite a few over 60%,” Spar said. “So why set a threshold of 50?”
Warring with teachers unions is nothing new for Republican luminaries. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were celebrated on the right for their attacks on public-sector unions, though neither managed to ride their anti-union record to the GOP presidential nomination.
But in the case of Florida, labor leaders believe the push to kill dues checkoff is wrapped up in DeSantis’ crusade against what he calls “woke ideology” in schools. He has banned “woke” textbooks, warred with the College Board over African American studies and attacked diversity, education and inclusion initiatives in higher education.
Spar said teachers unions are in the crosshairs because the governor views them as a line of defense against his education agenda, including at the university level.
“The governor has made it clear if he doesn’t like you he comes after you, whether you’re Disney, [prosecutor] Andrew Warren, school board members or the College Board,” Spar said. “The real reason we’re dealing with this bill is because teachers and staff and professors … are people who will band together and speak up on behalf of kids and communities and families.”
“The governor has made it clear if he doesn’t like you he comes after you.”
– Andrew Spar, president of Florida Education Association
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the Florida legislation a “noxious attack” on collective bargaining rights in an email to HuffPost. Weingarten is so concerned about the bill and DeSantis’ education agenda in general that she traveled to a union rally in Miami on Saturday. She said DeSantis is issuing “authoritarian edicts.”
“We have all watched Gov. DeSantis abandon the conservative notion of limited government, but in this session, he appears fixated on stripping away freedoms and silencing those who have raised doubts about his policies,” Weingarten said of the bill.
Templin, of the Florida AFL-CIO, said unions are trying to mobilize against the bill to prevent its passage in the House. But they are already discussing ways they would try to deal with the new system if the bill is signed and survives the nearly inevitable court challenges.
Unions may end up sharing resources to create new systems for dues collection if they can no longer deduct them directly from workers’ paychecks. But Templin said other facets of the legislation would be problematic as well, including a requirement for a new annual audit that unions would have to perform. According to Templin, some local unions are so small that the audit would be an unreasonable burden to staff.
Spar said that Florida Republicans may talk a lot about eliminating red tape and cumbersome regulations, but they appear happy to create more for the unions they don’t like.
“This is an incredible amount of government overreach and intrusion,” he said. “We’re private, democratic organizations … They’re basically saying that teachers and staff and others can’t make their own decisions and they need big government to make decisions for them.”