‘We are a disfavored union’: Alachua County unions challenge state law

Unions in Alachua County are leading the way in challenging a newly signed law targeting certain public sector unions which they call “political.”
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 6:04 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - Unions in Alachua County are leading the way in challenging a newly signed law targeting certain public sector unions which they call “political.” The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Florida - Gainesville Division.

SB 256 places a number of restrictions on unions. According to the Alachua County Education Association and the University of Florida chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, the most concerning of which prevent unions from collecting dues from paychecks.

The law changes the way most unions have collected dues for decades. In Alachua County, the teachers union is in the process of moving over their 2,300 members to an electronic payment. Sixty percent of the bargaining unit must become paying members or the union must petition for recertification.

“We have to get up to 60 percent and we are trying to do that in the next nine days before school gets out and we are at 29 percent,” explained Carmen Ward, the president of the Alachua County Education Association. “We are being irreparably harmed by this law and it is not being applied to all unions.”

Her union filed the lawsuit in part because not all public unions are subject to the new regulations. Unions representing firefighters and law enforcement officers are exempt.

“We do feel we are being discriminated against because other unions are not suffering the loss of this payroll deduction like law enforcement unions and firefighters. We are a disfavored union,” Ward said.

Lawmakers say the new regulations are designed to prevent from unions from misusing funds. Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons of Newberry says there are other ways to collect dues.

“Now we have Paypal and have a variety, or myriad, of ways,” Clemons explained. “[Payroll dues] do cost the government entities money in setting up fees, the automatic deductions, and the checks that are being cut. [The law] doesn’t impair the unions at all from collecting money from their members through the dues. What it does do is take the government out of that partnership.”

Clemons says SB 256 is a test and if it is successful other types of unions, including law enforcement and firefighter unions could have similar rules put in place.

“I think this is the first wave of things that we will take a look at and see how this works and then we will go from there,” said Clemons.

UF Faculty President Paul Ortiz says the law is unconstitutional because it breaks the collective bargaining agreements the unions made with public employers. He says teacher and faculty unions are being targeted because their contracts have academic freedom provisions allowing them to express their opinions.

“This is a time when the state is facing an epic teacher shortage, so why are you attacking teachers?” Ortiz questioned. “It’s egregious, I kind of understand why they attack faculty because we speak up a lot. We know that certain people in Tallahassee don’t like what we say.”

Both local unions claim their opposition to state COVID policy put targets on their backs. They opposed returning to class while the pandemic was ongoing.

“We’ve been targeted here. We’ve had state legislators and people outside the state target our chapter in particular. Our chapter was very active during the pandemic, we advocated very energetically on behalf of faculty. In some cases, for stage 4 cancer survivors we felt shouldn’t be back in the classroom,” said Ortiz.

Clemons says the political positions taken by unions are not always in step with their members.

“Labor unions have been uber-political in the past and it would not surprise me that they would call foul and say this is politically motivated. I’ve gotten complaints from community members that are involved in these membership unions and they have complained to me about different things like ‘the union is not representing my political beliefs,’” said Clemons.

Clemons touts the Florida Legislature’s back-to-back increases in teacher pay as proof they are working for educators.

“This was not done by the union bosses. This was done by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Florida’s governor.”

Sen. Keith Perry of Gainesville supports the right of unions to use the court system to challenge laws passed by the legislature, however, he is concerned about claims lawmakers are harming education.

“They bring up these things that we are ruining education... I chair Education and Appropriations from K through 20. We’ve made record funding in all levels of education,” Perry said.

Governor DeSantis recently signed a bill that prohibits schools from funding any programs that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion

The Gainesville lawsuit challenges the law in federal court, however, a second suit has been filed in state court. Three unions representing workers in Miami Beach, North Miami Beach, Deerfield Beach, Riviera Beach, and West Palm Beach filed a lawsuit late Tuesday in Leon County circuit court.

The lawsuit filed in Leon County circuit court argues that SB 256 violates collective-bargaining rights under the Florida Constitution. It also argues that the law violates equal-protection rights and unconstitutionally “impairs” already-existing contracts.

Ortiz says it was important for unions based in Gainesville to lead the challenge against the state.

“We felt that it was important for us to continue to be at the forefront and we have some pride too because we are at the University of Florida. We believe that as the flagship institution of the state, we should take leadership in supporting our students’ right to learn.”

The federal lawsuit is being funded by the Florida Education Association, which is a party to the suit, and the National Education Association.

-The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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