Florida’s 2023 legislative session has kicked off with a pair of bills chock full of new labor regulations long sought after by anti-union activists.
The bills—SB 256 and HB 1445—would deliver huge wins for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who called for virtually all of their provisions in his anti-labor wish list released in January.
While they bear DeSantis’ imprimatur, many of the bills’ specifics, both large and small, are lifted directly from the anti-union playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pay-to-play operation in which state legislators and corporate lobbyists meet behind closed doors to write model legislation.
The bills also have the backing of billionaire-bankrolled conservative think tanks that anti-worker lawmakers often call on for support, including Charles Koch’s astroturf group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and State Policy Network (SPN) affiliates the James Madison Institute and the Freedom Foundation.
If passed, the bills would empower the state of Florida to decertify public sector unions, prohibit automatic deductions for union dues, mandate universal language on union membership cards, and impose considerable annual reporting requirements.
“Gov. DeSantis says he supports ‘teacher empowerment,’ but this bill does the exact opposite,” the president of the Florida Education Association, Andrew Spar, said in a statement. “It’s an attack, pure and simple, on educators’ basic freedoms and rights.”
Perhaps the most consequential provision of the proposed legislation is its introduction of a new membership threshold for union decertification. The bills would require public sector unions to report their membership numbers to the state annually, a process that would lead to the potential decertification of any unions in which membership drops below 60% of eligible workers.
Under current Florida law, a decertification vote can only be triggered if at least 30% of a bargaining unit’s eligible workers file a petition calling for the vote.
The exception is teachers unions. Since the passage of a 2018 law, Florida teachers are the only public sector union members who are required to report their membership numbers annually. If their membership falls below a minimum of 50% of eligible workers, the union is forced to hold a decertification election.
The new legislation would impose these annual reporting requirements and the 60% membership threshold on all public sector unions, with the exception of those of police, firefighters, and corrections officers.
ALEC has long advocated for increasing the membership threshold for unions. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has previously reported on ALEC’s model Union Recertification Act, which requires decertification of a union if membership drops below 50%, and also requires a secret ballot election every two years.
As a “right-to-work” state, Florida allows teachers and other public sector workers to avoid paying union dues while benefiting from the better pay and working conditions that the union negotiates, which undermines the ability of unions to build their membership.
A CMD analysis of information provided by Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) demonstrates what’s at stake if the higher membership threshold in the proposed bills passes. In fiscal year 2021–22, there were 44 public teachers’ unions in the state with a membership density between 50 and 60%. Under the new legislation, the unions covering these workers—114,854 public school teachers, which amounts to 62% of the entire statewide unionized public teacher workforce—would be forced to petition PERC for recertification and hold time-consuming new elections, or else risk being decertified.
Although the Senate’s fiscal analysis considered the density of teachers’ unions, it appears that it did not take into account the density of other public sector unions.
The Senate bill would also prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues. This provision—which in ALEC’s articulation has taken the form of the Public Employer Payroll Deduction Policy Act and is continually recycled in other model bills, such as the Public Employee Freedom Act—would require public sector employees to grant permission every year to allow their dues to be deducted from their paychecks.
The proposed legislation would also mandate that each public sector union card include anti-union language acknowledging that Florida is a right-to-work state, that union membership and dues payment are voluntary, and that “no employee may be discriminated against” for not joining a union. This idea—along with most of the language in the bill—parrots ALEC’s model Public Employee Rights and Authorization Act.
Under current Florida law, the state does not stipulate that membership cards include any specific information or statements.
While ALEC’s model bill calls for this information to be “written in bold and in all caps” and printed in “a font that is equal to or larger than any other font found in the body of the form,” the Florida bill stipulates that it be printed in “14-point type.”
Coordinated Efforts to Undermine Workers
Last but not least, the bills include substantial annual reporting requirements. Each union will be required to provide an “annual audited financial report that includes a detailed breakdown of revenues and expenditures,” audited membership lists, all bylaws, officers’ salaries, and other information. This provision draws heavily from ALEC’s Union Financial Responsibility Act, a model bill that requires public sector unions to file extensive financial and operational reports every year.
All in all, the Florida House estimates that its bill will cost the state an additional $903,238 each year to enforce, according to its internal fiscal analysis.
The proposed legislation—which carves out exemptions for law enforcement officers, correctional officers, and fire fighters—has drawn intense criticism from workers’ rights advocates. An overwhelming majority of the public attending a House committee meeting on March 16—102 of the 112 non-legislators in the room—were opposed to the bill.
The handful of attendees who were proponents largely represented conservative think tanks. Among those speaking in favor of the legislation at the House committee meeting were Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the Madison Institute and chair of an ALEC task force, and Christopher Stranburg, AFP’s state legislative affairs director in Florida.
Representative Spencer Roach (R-79), who voted in favor of the House bill in committee, is ALEC’s Florida state chair, and a handful of other legislators who have moved the bill out of committee have ties to ALEC.
Registered lobbyists for the Senate bill include AFP, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, Jeb Bush’s pro-charter school 501c4. Lobbyists for the House bill include representatives from the Opportunity Solutions Project, the action-arm of right-wing think tank Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA); the Washington-based Freedom Foundation; the Center for Worker Progress Action (related to the Mackinac Center in Michigan); and additional lobbyists from NFIB and AFP.
FGA, the Freedom Foundation, and the Mackinac Center are state affiliates of SPN, the web of right-wing think tanks and tax-exempt organizations pushing far-right policy agendas throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. AFP and NFIB are associate members.
An internal SPN document provided by CMD to The Guardian in 2017 revealed SPN’s plan to work to “defund and defang” public sector unions. As articulated by SPN’s President and CEO Tracie Sharp, the goal is “permanently depriving the left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle.”
State Senator Blaise Ingoglia (R-11) and State Representative Dean Black (R-15) sponsored the bills, and committee votes in both chambers have been almost entirely along party lines. A single Republican state senator, Corey Simon (R-3), voted against the Senate bill.
The Senate bill was debated as a high-priority “special order calendar” item on Thursday, and will be taken up again when the Senate returns on March 29. The House bill is being reviewed by the State Affairs committee. Given the Republican’s supermajority in the legislature, the bills are expected to become law.
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