Beset with reactionary attempts to curtail their academic freedom and bust their unions, college and university professors have become a key target of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s far right regime — in no small part because they represent one of the few organized statewide forces ready to fight back against his increasingly repressive administration.
There are few people better positioned to speak about that fight than Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida and the president of the flagship university’s United Faculty of Florida (UFF) chapter. The UFF is a statewide powerhouse that represents 25,000 union members across the state, including faculty, librarians and counselors.
Ortiz is a true people’s historian — a writer and teacher of labor history, the history of social movements and oral history. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently the award-winning An African American and Latinx History of the United States, which historian Robin D.G. Kelley hailed as “an epic, panoramic account of class struggles in the Western Hemisphere” that centers “the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people who built the ‘new world.’” Ortiz is director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida and a National Archives Distinguished Scholar for 2022-2023. He is also a military veteran and former labor organizer.
In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Ortiz discusses the nature of the DeSantis regime, how his union is fighting back, the dynamics of the growing coalition of resistance in Florida, and what gives him hope for the future.
Derek Seidman: To start, can you talk a little about the power structure you’re up against in Florida? What’s your analysis of the DeSantis regime?
Paul Ortiz: We’re facing a regional fascist movement that is also backed by a national reactionary movement. Everyone realizes by now that Ron DeSantis and the people around him in Florida are moving along a fascist tendency. If you follow the careers of people like Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini, DeSantis is borrowing from their playbook, which is to destroy civil society, especially the trade unions.
In order to carry out a fascist agenda, you need to wipe out the labor movement. Right now, public sector unions are the only organized statewide force that stands between DeSantis and his agenda. The United Faculty of Florida has approximately 25,000 members. We have union members at every university and almost all the state and community colleges. We’re a statewide force that can counter fascism. We work in solidarity with other academic labor unions like Graduate Assistants United-UF.
But the national forces behind DeSantis are just as formidable as the statewide reactionary forces. DeSantis has had tremendous success raising money from billionaires, and only a minority of those are actually from Florida. They’re connected to national corporate interests. DeSantis is backed by a very powerful segment of the American ruling class.
The Manhattan Institute is particularly important here because their agenda has long been to privatize public education. They’re backing DeSantis. They’re funded by national corporations and billionaires like the Kochs. All the other right-wing think tanks have had roughly the same agenda.
Our legislators in Florida are disdainful of democracy. They oppose the rights of students to pick their own majors in college. They feel that teachers and professors cannot be trusted even to teach the courses that they’ve been trained to teach. These legislators are fascist individuals. They believe that the state should decide everything for the population.
All this makes Florida a low-hanging fruit for those national corporate forces. It isn’t that Florida’s more reactionary than any other states. Take California — it’s the center of the American prison-industrial complex. But we have forces within Florida that make us the low-hanging fruit for these fascist movements who are trying to destroy public education and destroy trade unions. They’re trying to destroy civil society so that they can get their way.
DeSantis is trying to abolish unions, critical race theory and gender studies because these are institutions and theories that help people challenge state power. There was a local news story that came out yesterday where a teacher had been assigning Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to his high school students. Now he’s learning he can no longer assign it.
This is a book that really gives you a sense of possibility and also a critique of society. I read that book as a senior in high school, as the son of combat military veterans. It really changed my life. And yet the state of Florida is trying to stop people from reading things like Slaughterhouse-Five, Toni Morrison, critical race theory, books about LGBT issues.
It’s very much a siege on the entire society, and one that’s being directed by — again — a segment of the American ruling class which is controlling the Florida State legislature.
How is your union fighting back right now? What are some examples of how different forces are coming together in resistance?
We’re quickly learning how to fight with our backs up against the wall.
DeSantis has the kind of power he has because of racial gerrymandering. He’s gerrymandered the voting districts in such a way that we’re probably going to have Republican supermajorities for many years to come. People in Florida are just beginning to wake up to the fact that we’re kind of on our own.
Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party put its resources elsewhere in the 2022 elections. Initially, that led to a lot of shock. Now we’re really beginning to hit our stride. We have members of the NAACP, the ACLU, United Faculty of Florida, the Florida Education Association, all giving incredible, powerful testimony against these reactionary bills in the state legislature right now. We’re getting active politically and realizing that nobody is going to save us — we’ve got to do it ourselves.
For example, on February 23, the Dream Defenders, which is one of the most important organizations connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, called for a statewide walkout in support of African American Studies. The state of Florida tried to ban African American Studies and had to kind of walk that back because of the resistance.
This demonstrated the growing maturity of our democratic movement. Literally within hours of the Dream Defenders announcing the February 23 statewide walkout, the United Faculty of Florida immediately endorsed the action. There was no hesitation whatsoever. I was actually at the meeting of statewide chapter presidents where this happened.
It was so inspiring to see that my comrades in the union movement understood that it was important to support the Dream Defenders and college and high school students who were walking out in protest of the state’s effort to eliminate Black Studies. It was primarily unionized faculty who organized, with the students, a three-hour Black Studies teach-in. We highlighted the works of scholars who have been canceled by the state of Florida — people like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Roderick Ferguson — and talked about their great works. We started with about 150 students, and we never had less than 75 students. I’ve never seen anything like it.
There’s a reason the state of Florida is trying to ban the idea of intersectionality. They want us to feel like we’re isolated and powerless. They don’t want us to join unions. There’s another bill pending where every new public employee would have to read a statement saying that they don’t have to join a union. That’s intimidation right off the bat. They want to rule and control, and they feel this is their time.
Why do you think DeSantis is attacking public schools and higher education so viciously? And why is he going after teachers’ unions?
In 2010, I wrote a piece for Truthout on what was happening in Arizona, when the state essentially tried to ban Mexican American studies. I argued that you had to bring the c-word into this — capitalism — to understand that the efforts to ban ethnic studies coincided with efforts to discipline labor to pass anti-immigration legislation.
What’s happening in Florida in 2023 is very similar to what happened in Arizona in 2010. “Culture” isn’t secondary to the economy. They work together, and we need to understand how. This is not a “culture war” that’s happening in Florida. The unions are seen as threatening to Ron DeSantis and his aspirations — that’s what his attacks on education are all about.
In the early years of the United Faculty of Florida, the issue of intellectual freedom was at the forefront of our collective bargaining agreements. This is why unionism is so crucial to saving intellectual freedom and to saving gender studies and critical race theory in Florida. Our collective bargaining agreement binds the University of Florida to be proactive in defending academic freedom. It’s the only thing right now that’s guaranteeing intellectual freedom in the entire state of Florida.
The temporary injunction against DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” Act was issued because enough people got fed up. This is the importance of academic freedom and tenure. If no one dissents in the society, then the state can do whatever it wants.
That’s the jeopardy we face right now in Florida. If the unions are defeated, then the floodgates are going to open, and the kind of wicked things you see happening right now in Florida, like the six-week abortion ban — well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
If we lose this battle, if our unions get decertified here, you will have full-blown fascism in the state of Florida. That’s what’s at stake down here right now.
Can you talk about the origins of the United Faculty of Florida and how that story shapes your fight today?
Florida is a state of the Deep South, and my university — the University of Florida — was founded as an all-white, all-male, all-Protestant institution. It took generations of struggle to break down the racism and the anti-Semitism, the hatred of women, that would finally allow those groups to enter the University of Florida and other universities and colleges throughout the state.
I wrote a book called Emancipation Betrayed, where I talked about how Florida had the highest lynching rate per capita in the country, much higher than Mississippi or Alabama. It was an intellectually repressive state. The civil rights movement really democratized the society. It was a struggle, institution by institution, led by African Americans, to defeat apartheid, including in higher education.
That’s one of the reasons why our union developed the way it did throughout the entire state — because of this long struggle. All the universities have unionized faculty chapters. There’s a lot of information out there now on the Johns Committee of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t know of any other state where the unions developed against such incredible opposition.
A lot of the founders of our union were the children of victims of the Holocaust. They were people who fled from Latin American dictatorships. One of our founders barely escaped from the Pinochet regime. Some of them grew up during the brutal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic.
That’s why history is so important. Back in 2021, the state of Florida tried to stop professors Dan Smith, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald from giving testimony in a voting rights case. It became national news. A retired faculty member, a Jewish colleague, came to my house to talk to me about the case. He said, “Paul, I came here to tell you one thing. My family were refugees from Nazi Germany. Growing up as a young boy I would hear elders arguing about Germany and the evil that befell it, and it would come back to the same point over and over again: Could it have been different? Could we have done things differently in the 1920s that could have warded off the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis?”
He said he thought that 1930 was the very last year that something could have been done to create a different outcome in Germany. The unions were still strong, and 1930 was when it became clear that the Nazis were a purely evil force in society. If the whole society mobilized, it could have defeated the Nazis. But it did not do so.
He looked me right in the eyes and said, “Paul, Florida is Germany in 1930.”
He said if the union doesn’t hold the line, from this point on it will get worse and worse. Then, at a certain point, it will be too late, just as it was in Nazi Germany. “I expect you to hold the line,” he told me. And “hold the line” has been the metaphor that we’ve used here in Florida. It’s honoring the history of struggle in our union.
You’re a historian of resistance and protest. Can you talk about Florida’s history of dissent and its legacy for today?
The sad thing is that, because of DeSantis, that history of struggle is not being taught today in our K-12 educational system. Frankly, teachers are terrified, and because of state repression, they’re now teaching a watered-down version of that history. It’s a Florida history, but without learning that A. Philip Randolph was the founder of one of the most important labor unions of the 20th century. When students get to my classes, they’re stunned that Florida had the highest lynching rate per capita in the country. Some of them don’t even know there was lynching in Florida.
That’s how impoverished Florida public education is becoming under the rule of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. When they talk about “wokeness,” what they’re really saying is they don’t want us to learn the truth about our history. Most importantly, they don’t want us to learn about the freedom struggles, the union campaigns in the 1930s, the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, and the LGBT campaigns of the 1980s. That’s why the Florida State legislature has so much ire in attacking critical race theory, transgender people and gender studies, all at the same time. They don’t want people learning the intersections of our incredibly powerful and rich histories.
Sometimes it feels like the forces of reaction in Florida are growing stronger. What gives you hope for the future?
We’re seeing different groups come together in new alliances and coalitions. I think that more people are realizing that we’re kind of on our own now in Florida, and that we need to dig in and relearn how to build coalitions and how to knock on doors.
There’s another reason for hope. Amendment 4 passed by about 60 percent in 2018. We had a statewide campaign that restored the voting rights — or should have restored the voting rights — of those convicted of nonviolent felonies. Going back a little further: The same year that the state of Florida went for Trump in national elections, we passed Amendment 2 by a big majority to significantly raise the minimum wage.
That shows you that when we’re not gerrymandered and when we organize together, the progressive forces are the majority in the state of Florida. That’s why these bills are being pushed through the legislature by DeSantis’s corporate cronies. They understand the threat to their rule. This is the whole story that the national media misses time and again.
Many of my former students are joining unions. Some have been active in the Starbucks campaign and the Amazon campaigns. A higher number than ever are going into labor law and immigration law. It’s an incredibly exciting time.
When I graduated from college in 1990, my friends thought I was ridiculous for going into the labor movement. No one supported labor back then. Now it’s different: 71 percent of Americans support unions, and I can tell you that among my students, the number is probably 95 percent or higher.
This is what really gives me hope. People are getting organized, not just in unions, but in progressive synagogues and mosques, and in new types of workers’ centers. People are understanding the power of organization.
My union is growing by leaps and bounds. More and more university instructors are understanding that we’re all workers, and that if we value academic freedom and value the right of students to read Toni Morrison or Kurt Vonnegut, then we’re going to have to unionize.
It’s really an exciting time to be a union president. I’ve seen how our librarians, our counselors, our instructors understand the connections between academic freedom, their rights as employees, and the rights of their students and their communities to learn what they want to learn.
I think that’s really the reason that people were organizing in the 1930s in the labor movement and in the 1960s in the civil rights movement — not because they were trying to get one or two more laws passed in their favor, but because they were fundamentally trying to democratize society and make it freer than it had been, creating something new that had never existed before.
That’s really what we’re trying to do in Florida, and we’re just hoping that people understand the connections between these seemingly disparate pieces: Black Lives Matter. Labor unions. Intellectual freedom. Reproductive rights. Gender studies. Critical race theory. They all go together in a big intersectional cauldron of organizing, if you will.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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