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Firefighters join Police Benevolent Association in union rules fight

Firefighters using a water hose to eliminate a fire hazard.
The Florida Professional Firefighters joined the case this week.

A statewide firefighters union has joined the Florida Police Benevolent Association in challenging the way a state agency is carrying out a new law that placed additional restrictions on public-employee unions.

The law, approved this spring by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, included restrictions such as preventing union dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks. But in a move that drew debate, lawmakers exempted unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters from the restrictions.

The Police Benevolent Association, however, filed a challenge in late July to proposed rules issued by the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, which is responsible for carrying out the law.

The proposed rules would apply the restrictions to PBA bargaining units made up of workers such as dispatchers and 911 operators who are not law-enforcement or correctional officers, according to the challenge. The Florida Professional Firefighters joined the case this week, and the Teamsters union, which represents a smaller number of public-safety workers, also intervened.

The case, filed at the state Division of Administrative Hearings, contends the exemptions from the restrictions were intended to apply to all workers represented by public-safety unions — not just law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.

“In an apparent disregard for and in contravention of the plain and unambiguous language of the exemptions … the proposed rules impermissibly limit the scope of the exemptions based on the classification of members within individual ‘bargaining units’ rather than applying the exemptions to the employee organization as a whole,” the PBA’s lawyers wrote in the challenge, filed July 27. “Under the proposed rules, the PBA and the members of the individual bargaining units comprised only of civilians, would not be exempt.”

Administrative Law Judge Robert Cohen has scheduled an Aug. 29 hearing in the case.

The administrative case is one of a series of legal challenges to the law. Teachers unions and other public-employee unions have filed at least three lawsuits in federal and state courts arguing parts of the law are unconstitutional.

In addition to preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks, the law requires union members to fill out new government-worded membership forms and will require unions to be recertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.

GOP lawmakers were widely viewed as exempting public-safety unions from the restrictions because organizations such as the PBA and the firefighters union have supported DeSantis and other Republicans politically. Meanwhile, for example, teachers unions have been among DeSantis’ biggest critics.

But the PBA’s concerns about the restrictions applying to members who are not law-enforcement or correctional officers surfaced in June, when the union filed an administrative challenge. The PBA later dropped that case before filing a renewed challenge in late July.

In a motion to intervene, the firefighters union cited non-firefighter members such as dispatchers and emergency-medical technicians and the dues-deduction issue.

“In plain English, the exemption from the prohibition against dues deductions is a right of the union acknowledged by the Legislature when the union has been certified by PERC (the Public Employees Relations Commission) as a bargaining representative of certified firefighters,” the motion said. “It does not say that all of those who are represented must be certified firefighters.”

The challenge accuses the agency of what is known in administrative law as an “invalid exercise of delegated legislative authority.”