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The Florida Senate passes a bill that would undermine most of the state's teacher unions

The Florida Historic Capitol Museum and State Capitol on Saturday, February 15, 2020, in Tallahassee.
Sam Thomas
Fresh Take Florida
The Florida Historic Capitol Museum and State Capitol on Saturday, February 15, 2020, in Tallahassee.

Nancy Velardi has negotiated with Pinellas County Schools, one of the largest school districts across Florida, for 18 years, securing affordable health insurance for teachers and their families and working to increase salaries.

But in her last term as president of the Pinellas County Teacher Association, the Republican-controlled Legislature could take away negotiating leverage from her union and others in Florida.

The Senate voted 23-17 on Wednesday to pass a measure that would increase the required percentage of union members who pay dues from 50% to 60% for all public sector employees excluding police, firefighters and correctional officers. A similar bill in the House has passed one committee so far on a 10-5 vote.

The proposals also would affect how unions collect dues, set limits on the salaries of union officials, restrict when members can recruit others and prohibit unions from soliciting support from high school or grade school students during classroom time.

The legislation would affect public sector employees but may have the greatest impact on teachers’ unions, which have traditionally supported Democratic policies and candidates in Florida.

Six Republicans voted against the bill – Sens. Ben Albritton of Bartow, Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island, Ileana Garcia of Miami, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, Ed Hooper of Palm Harbor and Corey Simon of Tallahassee. No Democrats voted for the bill.

Teacher unions represent all instructors – teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists – but only a portion pay dues. If fewer than 60% of a union’s members are dues-paying, the union would be decertified. That means losing the ability to bargain with their school districts.

“We would have to start the process to recertify, which means starting all over again,” Velardi said. “The problem is meanwhile the contract’s gone, and it doesn’t come back if we come back.”

Velardi’s union is one of 45 teacher unions that fail to meet the 60% requirement, according to the Senate. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher unions in Florida would fail to meet the new threshold and face decertification.

Under current law, the threshold is 50% and only placed one union, Santa Rosa Professional Educators, at risk of decertification. The union was decertified, but it petitioned for recertification and was approved.

Recertification would put unions back at square one, Velardi said.

“We would have to start all over,” Velardi said. She worries that teachers would lose benefits the union has negotiated such as the school district paying 80% of the cost of health insurance plans in Pinellas.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the Senate bill’s sponsor, Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said increasing the threshold to 60% was intended to involve more voices in the unions and to increase membership. Ingoglia also sponsored a bill this year – which has not been taken seriously and is stalled in a Senate committee – that would effectively shut down the Democratic Party in Florida.

“The idea here was to make sure that unions were being receptive to the union members and to push up union membership, so more people were involved in those decisions,” Ingoglia said.

Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning no employee must join a union or pay union dues, but non-union members enjoy the benefits of a negotiated contract.

“Many people will say, ‘Why should I pay for something if I’m getting it for free?’” Velardi said. “And what we’re trying to tell them now is that you won’t have the contract anymore because if the union gets decertified, the contract goes with it.”

The elimination of the contract does not mean teachers would not receive pay. However, agreements like when staff meetings can be held, the ability to transfer schools and discipline procedures that are negotiated by the union would be lost. Current norms like these could be changed by the district.

The bill also effectively prohibits unions from deducting dues from members’ paychecks, a common method for collecting dues.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, is working with local chapters to establish e-dues through Plaid, an online payment system that runs platforms like Venmo.

Membership could drop until payment systems are worked out, said Crystal Tessmann, service director at the Alachua County Education Association in Gainesville, home to the University of Florida and one of the state’s most Democratic counties.

“In the beginning, you can lose like 30% of your membership because of that lag or challenge in getting people signed up,” Tessmann said. “And that's what makes it scary for our percentage, even though we're at a really good spot now around 70%. If we lose a chunk, we're fighting against the clock.”

During the Senate debate, Democrats like Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, contrasted the proposed limits on union dues with conservatives’ messages about maintaining freedoms in Florida.

“Union members are losing their freedom, here in the freedom state, to choose how they want their dues deducted because the easiest way to have them deducted from their paycheck is now being taken away,” Polsky said.

Teacher unions are focused on informing and educating members about their rights and talking to members about the transition to electronic dues, said Lindsey Blankenbaker, executive director of the union in Pinellas County.

“If there's a silver lining to any of this, it is that while it is a difficult lift, and it is meant to totally destabilize the unions, we can turn it into an opportunity for expansion and growth.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at emmabehrmann@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.

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Emma Behrmann - Fresh Take Florida