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DeSantis Ramps Up His Attack on Florida’s Public Sector Unions

A slate of new bills targeting public sector unions will worsen the state’s teacher shortage.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Marathon County Lincoln Day Dinner annual fundraiser on May 6, 2023 in Rothschild, Wisconsin.

In what Governor Ron DeSantis likes to call his “freedom state” of Florida, the freedom to belong to an effective union is under a ferocious attack.

DeSantis, with the school year winding down, has just appeared at a Miami charter school to sign a new slate of bills that aim to undermine quality public services. One of the bills — described preposterously by DeSantis as “paycheck protection” — eliminates dues check offs for teachers and other public employees.

Check-off provisions in Florida have for years given public-sector workers like educators and nurses the option to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks and remitted straight to their union.

Eliminating dues check off weakens public-sector unions. Without automatic payroll deduction, unions have a harder time collecting the dues they need to function effectively. But the legislation DeSantis signed does not extend the “freedom” of check-off elimination into the law enforcement sector. Law enforcement unions, not so coincidentally, have endorsed DeSantis in his gubernatorial campaigns.

The new DeSantis-signed dues legislation also includes, hidden deep in the text, a killer provision that requires public-sector unions outside law enforcement to have an arbitrary super majority of eligible employees — 60 percent, not just a 50-percent-plus — if they want to keep the right to represent and bargain for public-sector workers.

Teachers in Florida feel especially targeted by the legislation DeSantis has so enthusiastically signed into law.

“This will hurt working people and the middle class,” says Karla Hernández-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade, the largest teacher union local in the entire Southeast. “This is about going after our freedom, about going after workers and their right to a fair contract.”

The increased 60-percent threshold to qualify for bargaining rights, Hernández-Mats points out, could be particularly devastating, solidifying Florida, a “right-to-work” state, as a “work-with-no-right state.” Nearly two-thirds of all local teacher unions in Florida would fail to meet the new super-majority threshold and face decertification.

In the face of this challenge, public-sector unions across the state are working to find creative ways to collect dues through electronic banking applications. They’re also mobilizing to help all teachers and other public employees understand the importance of becoming dues-paying union members.

“We are in constant communication with teachers, and a lot of our members are stepping up and talking to their colleagues about how important this is,” Hernández-Mats notes. “They’re talking about how the state could make us ‘at-will’ employees and how this bill could turn our public schools into a revolving door where no one is committed to education.”

Florida currently stands 48th in the nation when it comes to teacher pay and, not surprisingly, is facing a massive teacher shortage, opening 2023 with over 5,000 vacancies. Weakening unions, Hernández-Mats believes, will only exacerbate the crisis and speed the larger right-wing agenda to defund public education.

Another bill signed into Florida law this year advances that agenda by expanding the state’s charter school voucher program, a move that will allow parents to opt out of public schools and send their children to private schools on the state dime. This “school choice” bill will cost the state an estimated $4 billion in funding and starve local school districts. In the Tampa Bay area, for example, almost $850 million will be routed out of public schools for the 2023-2024 school year.

Florida hasn’t always been a testing ground for attacks on public educators and their unions. In fact, back in 1968, educators in Florida staged the nation’s first successful statewide teacher strike to protest chronic school funding shortages and bargain-basement teacher pay. But today the Florida Constitution and state law bar teachers from striking and threaten “hefty penalties” if they do.

That reality has the current struggle against the DeSantis attack on public education and public educators going down a different lane. The statewide teacher union, the Florida Education Association, has just filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the implementation of the newly signed DeSantis legislation.

Governor DeSantis, says FEA president Andrew Spar, “has made it clear that he is targeting educators because we exercise our constitutional right to speak out against attempts by this governor and others to stymie the freedom to learn and to stifle freedom of thought.”

The governor, adds Spar, “is using this legislation to retaliate against his critics,” a retaliation “very similar to what we’ve seen in the attacks on Disney.”

DeSantis, a still-unannounced candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, has ample resources for continuing his offensive against unions and their support for higher taxes on the rich to fund better public services. DeSantis, as an analysis in one of Florida’s top daily newspapers detailed last year, has “extraordinary” billionaire support.

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