Florida’s largest teachers’ union wasted no time in suing the state over a controversial new law that took effect Sunday and could threaten the existence of the labor organizations.
House Bill 7055 includes a provision that would decertify teachers’ unions if their dues-paying membership falls below 50 percent. The Florida Education Association (FEA), which represents 140,000 members statewide, argues the law impairs individual employees’ constitutional right to collective bargaining.
FEA filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court on Monday challenging the law. Broward Teachers Union and its president, Anna Fusco, are both named as plaintiffs. WLRN reported last month on the Broward County teachers’ union’s intention to join the then-impending lawsuit.
The lawsuit names the members of the state's Public Employee Relations Commission, because they are the ones charged with enforcing collective bargaining laws.
“This law is a very targeted attack on public school teachers' rights to organize, speak out as a group and advocate for themselves, their students and our schools,” FEA president Joanne McCall said Monday on a conference call with reporters.
Melissa Rudd — one of the plaintiffs who is a teacher in Wakulla County, in rural north Florida — said on the call that she and her colleagues are suing because they’re tired of getting beat up by legislators and intend to fight back. The conservative state legislature is known to be hostile to labor; outgoing House Speaker Richard Corcoran called FEA “evil” during his first speech in the position.
“Why do we put up with what the Legislature is doing to us?” Rudd said. “We’re not feeling defeated. We're feeling angry. And we are ready to do something about it. That's what this lawsuit is.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott pointed to comments he made on March 11, the day he signed the bill. He said at the time, “it increases transparency.” A representative for Senate leaders did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. In a statement, Corcoran said it's "reasonable and appropriate" for unions to represent at least a majority of teachers. "The union’s argument that it is entitled to exercise power and control over public education in Florida without having to earn the support of the people it claims to represent reflects an arrogance and elitism that has no place in a democratic society," he said.
FEA’s relationship with state legislators is fraught in part because the union is the primary group that consistently sues over state education policy, particularly efforts over the last two decades to boost private alternatives to public education like charter schools and vouchers.
In addition to arguing that H.B. 7055 is unconstitutional because it infringes on individuals' collective bargaining rights, the lawsuit also contends that it's discriminatory because it treats teachers' unions differently than other public employee unions. And the lawsuit also challenges the entire omnibus bill, which FEA argues includes too many subjects that aren't closely related to each other.
FEA’s lawyer, Ron Meyer, said a successful challenge could imperil the whole law. Among its hundreds of pages are unprecedented measures to grow privately run charter schools in Florida.
“If a judge finds that it was improperly enacted, it was improperly enacted for all purposes,” Meyer said, stressing that the union’s interest is mainly targeting the collective bargaining language.
McCall, FEA’s president, said so far the legislation has helped fuel membership growth in teachers’ unions.
Read the lawsuit here.
This story has been updated with a comment from Richard Corcoran.