Teachers unions challenge new law
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
May 10, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — Teachers unions have quickly filed a constitutional challenge to a new Florida law that places additional restrictions on public-employee unions, describing the measure as political retaliation by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida, the Alachua County teachers union and the University of Florida faculty union filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Tallahassee, alleging that the law violates First Amendment, equal-protection and contract rights.
DeSantis signed the law (SB 256) during an event Tuesday in Miami. The Republican governor and teachers unions have repeatedly clashed about education policies, and the unions were key supporters last year of DeSantis’ election opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist.
The lawsuit pointed to unions that represent law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters — which have backed DeSantis and other Republicans — being exempted from the restrictions.
“In a bid to punish the ‘school unions’ and other public employee unions who have opposed him, Gov. DeSantis pushed for ‘unprecedented’ changes to Florida’s collective bargaining law to harm disfavored unions while exempting those unions representing law enforcement, corrections, and firefighter employees who have supported him,” the lawsuit said.
Among other things, the law prevents dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks, forcing union members to make separate payments. Also, 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.
In addition, it requires unions to include specific information on membership forms about Florida being a “right-to-work” state and about compensation of the five highest-paid officers and employees of each union.
Also, it requires unions to have audited financial statements, which will need to be made available to members.
Supporters have said the law would provide more transparency to workers about unions. During an appearance Wednesday in Jacksonville, DeSantis said the law will be “good for teachers.”
“They can make more of an informed decision,” DeSantis said. “They have a better sense of how much money is actually going and then they can evaluate what the union is actually doing for them. They are really not doing very much. They use that money for political, partisan activities. That’s what they use it for.”
But during a news conference Wednesday, state and national union leaders said the law is about political retribution. They likened it to DeSantis’ battle with the Walt Disney Co. after the entertainment giant opposed a 2022 state law restricting instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
“The governor is using this legislation to retaliate against his critics, very similar to what we’ve seen in the attacks on Disney as well,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said.
The lawsuit alleges the measure violates First Amendment rights, in part, by requiring that specific information be included on union membership forms.
“(The section of the law), by compelling disfavored unions to convey a prominent, government-drafted, 91-word ‘right-to-work’ affirmation in the membership authorization forms that they present to prospective members, and compelling those public employees who desire to become members of disfavored unions to sign that affirmation, violates the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also raises equal-protection arguments because the restrictions do not apply across-the-board to unions, exempting the unions for law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.
Also, it raises allegations about the law unconstitutionally impairing existing union contracts. For example, the contract between the Alachua County Education Association union and the Alachua County school district allows union dues to be deducted from teachers’ paychecks. A contract between the United Faculty of Florida and the University of Florida has a similar provision.
“By prohibiting disfavored unions from collecting voluntary membership dues via payroll deduction, (a section of the law) substantially impairs the contractual rights” of the United Faculty of Florida and the Alachua County Education Association, the lawsuit said.
The law, which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed during the session that ended last week, applies to a variety of unions. The lawsuit, however, only names as plaintiffs the education unions.
Members of the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, which will carry out the law, are named as defendants.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.