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Senate passes public-employee union restrictions

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

March 29, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would place new restrictions on public-employee unions, including preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.

Dozens of union members watched from the gallery as the Republican-controlled Senate voted 23-17 to pass the measure (SB 256), sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. The vote came after a series of Democratic lawmakers criticized the bill, with Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, saying it is “designed to break the backs of unions.”

“This is the ultimate in cancel culture,” Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said.

But Ingoglia said the bill is aimed at making sure more union members’ “voices” are heard.

“There is absolutely nothing, nothing in this bill that negatively impacts an employee’s ability to join, maintain membership in, pay for or participate in their union,” Ingoglia said. “That is just a simple fact.”

Similar bills have been proposed repeatedly in recent years, but issues such as the change in dues deductions have not passed. This year’s bill moved quickly through the Senate, and a House version (HB 1445) needs approval from one more committee before going to the full House.

The bills would affect a wide range of public-employees unions, including teachers unions. But it would exempt unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.

Teachers unions played a key role in supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist in his unsuccessful bid last year to unseat Gov. Ron DeSantis. Crist’s running mate, Karla Hernandez-Mats, is president of the Miami-Dade County teachers union.

Democrats alleged political motivations behind the Senate bill. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

“This seems like we are once again picking winners and losers, and we are playing partisan politics,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said.

The part of the bill preventing automatic deductions of union dues would force union members to make separate payments, which would be less convenient. Opponents contrasted that with how employees can have payroll deductions for such things as insurance and charitable contributions.

Ingoglia defended that change and other parts of the bill.

“This proposal in this bill protects employees, and it saves Florida taxpayers by getting them out of the financial relationship between an employee and their union,” Ingoglia said.

The bill, in part, also would require gauging how many eligible employees are dues-paying union members. If fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members, unions would have to be recertified as bargaining agents.

In addition, it would allow public employers to challenge union’ applications to renew registrations as bargaining agents if the employers think the applications are inaccurate.

Among other things, the bill would require unions to have audited financial statements, which would need to be made available to members.

Gruters, a certified public accountant, focused on the auditing requirements as he opposed the bill. He said large unions would be able to adjust to the requirements but that small unions wouldn’t be able to comply.

“Financial statements are not quick, they’re not easy, and they’re very expensive to do,” Gruters said.

Before the Senate went into session, union members lined the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda, outside the Senate chamber, chanting and singing solidarity songs. The Florida Education Association teachers union issued a news release after the vote saying the bill is about “revenge.”

“Florida has a critical shortage of teachers and staff. Trying to silence educators is not going to get more teachers in front of our students, more drivers for their buses or nurses and mental health counselors in our schools. It will do the opposite and drive people away,” Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teachers union, said in a prepared statement.

But Vincent Vernuccio, senior policy adviser for Workers for Opportunity, a group that supports such proposals in numerous states, said in a statement that the Senate “took an important step toward realizing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vision of a freer workplace for Florida teachers and public employees."

"The government should not be the bill collector for union dues, especially when those unions are affiliated with national organizations that do not respect Florida taxpayers’ values,” Vernuccio said. “These measures put decision-making power where it belongs — firmly in the hands of Florida employees.”

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