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A bill targeting union membership in Florida is getting pushback...again

A brick wall with a black silhouette of protestors holding signs.
Jonathan Stutz

A Republican proposal would make changes to public employee unions in Florida. Under the bill, workers would no longer be allowed to have dues deducted from their paychecks. Members would have to pay them directly to their unions.

“In today's modern times, there are so many different choices on how to pay," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. "I think that's a reasonable part of the bill to reflect modern times.”

That change and others would affect unions representing teachers and government workers — but not those representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers, and firefighters.

“The bill requires an employee to sign a membership authorization form when they join a union," Plakon said as he presented the bill to the House Government Operations Subcommittee. "The form must include a statement that the employee understands that Florida is a right-to-work state, and union membership is not required as a condition of employment.”

Among other things, the bill requires a union to revoke a membership if the employee submits a written request, and at least half of the employees that are eligible for representation must be dues-paying members – or the union could be decertified.

The targeted unions believe the bill is politically motivated. They point to the fact that law enforcement, correctional officers, and firefighter unions often endorse Republican candidates. Plakon says courts have ruled that certain unions can be treated differently.

Similar bills have been floated by Republicans for years. Plakon told Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, that he has spoken with various unions about his proposal.

"The workers that you spoke with, were they with FEA, were they with SEIU, were they with any other organizations?" Rayner asked. "The first bill I found similar to this, parts of it anyway, was 2011," Plakon responded. "So in that 11 year period, I've talked to all that you’ve just mentioned and many, many more.” All of those named unions oppose the bill (HB 1197).

"This bill is not an attack on unions. It's an attack on the ability, in our case, for teachers and staff in our schools to be able to come together to advocate for their students,” Andrew Spar told WFSU. He is president of the Florida Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the state. "This is a bill that's directly aimed at taking away the freedom of individual teachers and staff who work in our schools, who sacrificed so much in our schools, kept our schools going during this pandemic," Spar said. "This is to take away their freedom to come together and advocate.”

"I'm a custodian in Orange County Public Schools, one of the low paid custodians who might have a challenged bank account,” said Ron Pollard during public testimony. He asked the panel to vote no on behalf of his school peers, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers. "Number one, nobody tricked me into joining my union," Pollard said. "Number two, when I elected payroll deduction on that form, nobody tricked me into that either. Let's cut this out.”

"Employees deserve the right to confirm who's empowered to bargain for them," said Philip Suderman, one of the few speakers supporting the bill. He’s policy director for Americans For Prosperity, a right-leaning political advocacy group. "Employees deserve the right to end association with groups they feel no longer represent their best interests, and employees deserve the right to confirm when money is taken from their paychecks, and that it is indeed voluntary.”

“I'm not a teacher. I'm not a public sector laborer. But you don't have to be one of those to be offended by this legislation,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. He cited onerous paperwork, threats of union decertification, and lost union revenues making it difficult to recruit members. "Folks, if it looks like a union busting bill, if it sounds like a union busting bill, if it acts like a union busting bill, and if it union busts like a union busting bill, it's a union busting bill,” Smith said.

The subcommittee voted 10 to 7 to advance the bill. Without comment, Rep. Anthony Rodriguez, R-Miami, was the only member of his party to side with Democrats in voting no.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.