Second lawsuit challenges union restrictions
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
May 10, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — A new law placing additional restrictions on public-employee unions has been hit with a second legal challenge, with unions representing city workers in South Florida saying it violates the state Constitution.
Three unions representing workers in Miami Beach, North Miami Beach, Deerfield Beach, Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach filed a lawsuit late Tuesday in Leon County circuit court, hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law. Teachers unions also filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday arguing that the law violates the U.S. Constitution.
The law, which the Republican-led Legislature passed during a session that ended last week, includes preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks, forcing union members to make separate payments. Also, for example, it requires gauging how many eligible employees are dues-paying union members. If fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members, unions will have to be recertified as bargaining agents.
While the law applies to a variety of public-employee unions across the state, unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters are exempted from the restrictions.
The lawsuit filed in Leon County circuit court argues that the law (SB 256) violates collective-bargaining rights under the Florida Constitution. It also argues that the law violates equal-protection rights and unconstitutionally “impairs” already-existing contracts.
“SB 256 is an attack on the fundamental right of public employees to collectively bargain with their employer under (a section of the state Constitution),” the circuit-court lawsuit said. “SB 256 prohibits employees from voluntarily paying dues via deductions from their paychecks and prevents their chosen representatives from negotiating over the same. SB 256 also eliminates the right of public employees to be represented by a union chosen by majority representation irrespective of dues payment despite the fact that Florida is, under our Constitution, a right-to-work state.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Miami Beach Municipal Employees AFSCME Local 1554; North Miami Beach, Florida, City Employees Local 3293, AFSCME; and the Professional Managers and Supervisors Association, which represents workers in Deerfield Beach, Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach. Also, the plaintiffs include three union members: Carlos George, a fire equipment mechanic for Miami Beach; Judy Genao, an administrative assistant for the North Miami Beach Police Department; and Al Leal, a telecommunications superintendent for West Palm Beach.
The lawsuit is filed against the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which will carry out the law.
Many of the issues in the lawsuit are similar to allegations in the federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Florida Education Association and other teachers unions. The education lawsuit, however, focuses on federal — instead of state — constitutional issues.
Supporters of the law have argued that the changes, such as ending dues deductions from paychecks, would provide more transparency to workers.
“They don’t know how much is being deducted when they start deducting from the paycheck,” DeSantis said Wednesday during an appearance in Jacksonville. “What we are saying is that it’s not appropriate to have automatic deductions. If you want to do it, you can write a check and hand it to them.”
The lawsuit filed in circuit court, however, argues that issues such as dues deductions have been collectively bargained and are part of existing contracts. As a result, the lawsuit contends the change violates collective bargaining and improperly impairs contracts.
“The state has no compelling interest in prohibiting dues checkoff clauses entered into voluntarily between employers and employee organizations, and no legislative purpose for that prohibition is described in SB 256,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also alleges that the measure violates equal-protection rights because it exempts unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters. For instance, while George and Genao work for a fire department and a police department, they do not belong to the same unions as firefighters and law-enforcement officers.
The lawsuit said changes in the law “do not apply equally to all public employees or their unions. Rather they are selectively and arbitrarily applied only to disfavored employees and unions, while certain favored employees and unions — those that are certified to represent police, fire or corrections officers — are inexplicably exempted from SB 256’s abridgements.”