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Unions dues re-write still not good enough, unions say

By Lynn Hatter


Tallahassee, FL – A bill in the Senate that would have banned government employee payroll deductions for union dues was changed on Friday to only ban payroll deductions for political use. The House measure still bans all payroll deductions. As Lynn Hatter reports, the dues fight is heating up - pitting the unions against business groups.

At the center of the fight are two large and powerful unions the Florida Education association, which represents teachers, and the Florida Chamber, which represents businesses. And they're taking the union dues fight to the airwaves.

With warring political ads, both unions and their opponents are looking to take their cases to the court of public opinion. But the issue has not yet been decided in the legislature. Right now there are two separate proposals dealing with how unions spend their money. An amendment in the Senate changed the bill to allow automatic payroll deduction. But there's a catch: That money still can't be used for political purposes. Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin says the re-write is just as bad as the original bill.

"What this change does is makes the bill even more egregious. It targets everything. The definitions are so broad where it says, cannot fund politics directly or indirectly,' it really is saying, we're shutting you down in terms of your ability to advocate for the people you represent. And that's our main reason for being."

Meanwhile, the House is sticking to its original proposal which says public employee unions can't use automatic payroll deduction, and that members have to give written approval if they want their money going for political purposes. Unions say the proposals are political payback for siding with issues and candidates the legislature and the Republican majority opposed during the last election cycle. Florida Education Association Spokesman Mark Pudlow says there are winners and losers in every election cycle, but the winners aren't playing fair.

"We live to get our ideas across at the next election. But what the side that won last time is doing is trying to say, no, you don't get a chance to get your ideas across next time, we're going to stop you from doing that,' and that's just profoundly un-American."

Fighting FOR the bills is the business lobby. That includes the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries of Florida. John French is an AIF lobbyist.

"We feel that unions should be treated like every other association in terms of their dues, they should be on the open market place and having their dues for political purposes is not, in the ideal sense what government should be all about."

Unions say the dues proposals are an attack on collective bargaining rights. But French, who also served as a lawyer on Governor Rick Scott's campaign team, says if the bills do pass, the unions will still be able to negotiate contracts, and lobby.

"Now its political money, and by political money we mean money being used for campaign contributions and things like that, would have to be raised on the same basis that all the other associations and political committees in Florida do."

That means establishing a separate pot of money made up from additional donations that members give to their unions. In Florida, union membership is voluntary. People choose whether they want to pay their dues or not. Something that Jane Walker of Central Florida, who is a union member, points out.

"It's your choice. It's our choice if we want to pay. If you want to get out you can get out at anytime. It is strictly our choice and we choose to do this. We choose to have that voice. It's silencing us and we're using our own money. How can anyone tell you what to do with your own money? It's like me telling you, no, you're going to spend your money this way.' It's my choice. It's everyone's choice. And they don't feel it's a waste."

The last election cycle brought a wave of fresh faces to the legislature and also shifted the political dynamic of the chamber. Republicans have a super-majority in the House. The same is true for the senate. But in that chamber, the makeup is a bit different. Several key senators have expressed concern over the proposal after narrowly passing in two committees, its sponsor, Republican John Thrasher of Jacksonville, amended the bill to keep payroll deduction in place. But the change didn't satisfy unions like the Florida Professional Firefighters. Association President Gary Rainey told lawmakers if they vote for the bill, his group and others aren't likely to forget it.

"This is one of those gut votes that will be long remembered and will follow those who vote for it for a long time. And that might be fine with you or not fine with you .But this isn't one that we are likely to forget or will go quietly into the night."

The bill has already cleared the full House and a vote in the Senate is expected after the Easter and Passover break. Meanwhile, the battle has mobilized the unions and protests have been occurring at the capital and across the state. And, at least for one of those unions, the Florida Education Association there's been an unintended but favorable side-effect: enrollment is going up.