TALLAHASSEE – Unions representing teachers and health care workers would fspance strict, new requirements under a mespansure approved Wednesday in a swipe at key spanllies of the Florida Democratic Party by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Outside the Senate chamber, dozens of members of state public employee unions sang, chanted and held signs protesting before the Senate vote. The new standards also apply to unions for librarians, garbage haulers, utility line workers, cafeteria workers and many others.
“It’s looking to not only destroy our union, but also to intentionally hurt our workers,” said Abel Besvergunat, 52, a therapist at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. “It’s clearly political payback.”
The bill, called for by Gov. Ron DeSantis, ends paycheck deductions for specific public-sector union dues and increases to 60% required employee membership, decertifying a union that can’t meet that threshold.
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Paycheck protection or political payback?
Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, a former Florida Republican Party chair, labeled his legislation (SB 256) “paycheck protection,” arguing it helps employees by demanding more accountability from labor organizations.
“This bill ensures that more union voices, members are actually heard,” Ingoglia told senators. “This bill recognizes that taxpayer resources should have zero role in collecting and remitting those dues.”
But Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said Senate Republicans were wrong to target teachers and health care workers.
“These are the same people who when your families were in need during COVID, they stepped up and took care of you,” Jones said. “If this is how we say thank you to them, shame on us.”
Current law requires state teachers unions to maintain 50% employee membership to retain their certification. That law was put in place five years ago, also by the GOP-led Legislature in advance of the 2018 elections, when DeSantis was first elected governor.
Along with the new membership standard, the legislation also demands that a union’s annual financial report be audited by an independent certified public accountant. The authorization form signed by those joining a public employees’ union, would have to display the salaries of the organization’s five highest paid officers and employees, under the bill.
A surprise opponent
But the auditing requirement drew an unexpected opponent – Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, a CPA and former state GOP chair. Gruters said auditing a financial report is not simple, and will prove extremely costly for small unions.
He concluded, “The only intent of the bill is to kill of the unions in Florida, so I cannot vote ‘yes,’”
Gruters was among five Republicans voting against the measure, approved 23-17, with Democrats united in opposition.
Sens. Corey Simon of Tallahassee, Jennifer Bradley of Green Cove Springs, Ileana Garcia of Miami, and Ed Hooper of Clearwater were other Republicans opposed.
Republican-allied unions, exempt from new standards
The political shading of the legislation is evident, critics said, because public sector unions that tend to endorse, contribute and work in the campaigns of Florida Republicans – correctional officers, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders – are shielded from the new requirements.
Exempting the Republican-leaning labor groups has been rationalized by supporters who cite the demanding work and unpredictable hours which go into a job in first-responder professions.
The state’s biggest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, and the labor organization, Service Employees International Union, which represents health care employees and others, fought bitterly against DeSantis last fall.
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And they are the organizations that are seen as inspiring the measure. The legislation is certain to clear a similar, Republican supermajority in the House in coming weeks and go to DeSantis for his signature.
Florida Democrats are at their lowest point in modern history, with no Democrats holding statewide office. DeSantis won re-election last fall by the largest margin in a Florida governor’s race in 40 years, and the GOP has opened a wide advantage in voter registration.
The Senate vote came the same day Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison was in Tallahassee for a fund-raiser to help the state’s struggling Democratic Party.
Ruling Republicans in the Legislature, though, appear intent on pushing even harder to cement their one-party command. And the blow against unions may help that.
“This bill is designed to break the backs of unions,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.