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As Florida’s new union law goes into effect, it’s ‘do or die’ time for labor

 Members and staff of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199 are in the midst of a major drive to increase membership. If they do not hit 60 percent membership by October, the union will be dissolved under a new Florida law. Deborah Jackson, right, is a Miami-Dade Department of Solid Waste Management employee who is active with the union.
Daniel Rivero

Story updated on July 11, 2023

Across the state of Florida, labor unions are in a panic.

The problem, as they see it, is SB 256, a bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in early May.

The law has two major components, and the clock is ticking on both.

On July 1, the law officially went into effect. As of that date, employees of local governments will no longer have their union dues deducted from their paychecks, a set-it-and-forget-it reality that has been in place for decades. Union members now need to take extra steps to set up payment plans to keep their dues up to date.

Then, by October, public employee unions will need to share data with the state about how many union members have paid dues in the most recent membership renewal cycle.

If the public union does not cross the threshold of at least 60% of members paying dues, the union will be decertified, calling its very future into question.

READ MORE: New laws on immigration and unions

In the face of the double-whammy law — creating a new process for paying dues while simultaneously requiring more people to pay dues — public labor unions are launching all-out campaigns to get their numbers up.

“Are we at 60%? No. I can't give you a definitive number,” said Se’Adoria “Cee Cee” Brown, the president of AFSCME Local 199. “However, I can say that there has been a push and we've signed up 700 new members since we started this whole campaign, and when folks realized, ‘Hey, this is real.’”

The Local 199 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union represents about 7,500 employees of Miami-Dade County: transit officials, animal services, staff at the Medical Examiner’s Office, administrative clerks in the court system.

“It's kind of like do or die, because this law is ultimately an attack on working class people,” said Brown.

 Se'Adoreia Brown is the president of AFSCME Local 199, a union the represents sanitation workers, transit workers, court staff, secretaries and other professions in the Miami-Dade County government. The union represents around 7,500 workers.
Daniel Rivero
Se'Adoreia Brown, the president of AFSCME Local 199, has been leading the union through a push to get to 60 percent of the estimated 7,500 members of the bargaining unit to pay dues. If the union does not meet that threshold by October its future remains uncertain.

On a recent rainy morning, Brown joined union stewards and staffers at the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami as they collected ballots to ratify a new labor contract before the law goes into effect. The contract would keep member benefits in place at least through 2026. The timeline for ratifying the contract was accelerated because of the new law, said Brown.

While it collected ballots, the union wooed workers into coughing up dues payments they were not previously paying. Since Florida is a right-to-work state, members of the bargaining unit do not have to pay dues in order to benefit from union-bargained benefits and contracts.

“The days of piggybacking is long gone, because if there's no union contract it’s nothing for any of us to piggyback off of,” added Brown.

One worker who decided to start paying dues was Veronique Nesmith, an employee of the Finance Department.

“It's kind of like do or die, because this law is ultimately an attack on working class people."
Se'Adoria 'Cee Cee' Brown, president of AFSCME Local 199

“I’ve been working for the county now a little more over a year,” said Nesmith. “I had thought about it, I just did not have the information and education behind it.”

Her co-worker, Monica Jemison, also of the Finance Department, is the person who convinced Nesmith to hear out the union, and ultimately, to sign up.

If the union was decertified, it would be a catastrophe for workers, said Jemison. Paid holidays, birthday holidays, merit increases, longevity bonuses, sick leave payout — all of it could be on the chopping block.

“You would lose all the benefits that you originally have — down to basic pay,” said Jemison.

Jemison smiled as Nesmith signed the paperwork for the monthly dues payment under the union’s new payment system.

 Jared Crawford, an employee and union steward at the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts office, speaks with
Daniel Rivero
Jared Crawford, an employee and union steward at the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts office, speaks with Veronique Nesmith and Monica Jemison, employees of the Miami-Dade Department of Finance. Nesmith, center, signed up to start paying union dues for AFSCME Local 199.

Education unions at risk

The new law builds upon a 2018 law that was passed by Florida legislators, but which only impacted teachers unions.

Since 2018, the law required teachers unions to have at least 50% of members pay dues.

The new law expands that requirement to all public employee unions — with the exception of police, firefighters and correctional officers. The law also raises the threshold from 50% of members paying dues to 60% or higher.

That number is a formidable obstacle for many teachers unions, a group that has butted heads with Florida lawmakers in recent years.

Out of the 67 counties in Florida, only 22 countywide teachers unions passed the new 60% threshold last year, according to state numbers released to the Florida Senate.

Some of the most populous counties in the state were barely on the right side of the previous 50% threshold. In Orange County, only 54% of teachers union members paid dues during the 2021-2022 bargaining period. In Pinellas County, it was 53.56%. Polk County, 50.34%.

For Miami-Dade County — the most populous county in the state — only 50.84% of teachers union members paid dues during the last cycle. The union was barely staying afloat even before the new law even goes into effect, and it has now launched a campaign to increase its membership.

“It's increased in the last couple of months,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade, or UTD, the county teacher’s union. “At this point, we're probably close to 55% density already.”

More than 27,000 teachers and other staff have employment contracts negotiated by the union.

Hernandez-Mats told WLRN that the effort to get to 60% or higher by October is an “uphill battle” that is being waged all summer by the union, but that she is “confident” the union will pull through.

At the UTD headquarters in Miami Springs, row upon row of desks sat empty on a recent afternoon.

Hernandez-Mats, who ran as Lieutenant Governor last year with Democrat Charlie Crist, said the office was empty because staffers are busy recruiting new members at summer school sites and trying to re-register members to a new payment system.

She compared the law to a 2011 law passed in Wisconsin that limited the ability of public sector unions to perform collective bargaining, a law that made national headlines at the time. Public union membership steeply declined after that law passed.

Florida’s new law incorporated some of the same provisions of that law, like blocking direct paycheck deductions for most public unions. But the Wisconsin law placed the threshold of union recertification at 50% — not the 60% that Florida passed.

“It should be national news,” said Hernandez-Mats. “This is the most egregious, most anti-union bill ever proffered in the entire United States history.

United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats at the union headquarters in Miami Springs.
Daniel Rivero
United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats said the new law represents an attack on workers in Florida. But she added that there might be an up side. “It's forcing us to educate people on the importance of labor and the importance of unions. And it's going to make a difference,” said Hernandez-Mats.

The teachers union leader said educators are already feeling pressure from a rush of state laws that have imposed new restrictions on what teachers can and can’t say in the classroom, and new laws that have led to some subject matter and books being restricted from classrooms and libraries.

If the union is decertified, said Hernandez-Mats, those pressures would be exacerbated. The state ranks 48th in the nation for average teacher pay. Losing collective bargaining could mean things like planning periods, duty-free lunch breaks and retirement plans for teachers could be at risk.

“It's forcing us to educate people on the importance of labor and the importance of unions. And it's going to make a difference,” said Hernandez-Mats. “Not only is this making our educators angry and upset at the attacks that they're receiving, but it's also mobilizing people. It's mobilizing people into action.”

The sponsor of the new law in the Florida Senate, Spring Hill Republican Blaise Ingoglia, said in a public meeting that this is largely the intent of the new law: That public unions need to be more engaged with their members.

“When we passed 50% [in 2018], we realized that there were some people who were under the 50% and they went out and had that forced conversation because of the law,” Ingoglia said in a March committee hearing. “Another forced conversation is going to happen. There is going to be more employees that are going to be involved in their union.”

Ingoglia’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

In March, when asked in the meeting if he thought the new law will lead to public unions being harmed and decertified, Ingoglia replied: “I think the exact opposite is going to happen.”

“It should be national news. This is the most egregious, most anti-union bill ever proffered in the entire United States history.
Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade.

The only county teachers union that reported less than 50% of dues-paying membership over 2021-2022 was that of Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle, where only 36% of members paid union dues. When it came time to re-certify the bargaining unit, 92% voted in favor of keeping the union alive.

The teachers' union in Jefferson County, in North Florida, was decertified and dissolved after the 2018 law went into effect.

The county with the highest number of dues-paying members of the teachers union bargaining unit is Sarasota County, the epicenter of ongoing battles over the future of public education in Florida. A full 85.68% of teachers union members paid dues there in 2022.

The state does not currently track numbers like these for public employee unions that are not in education, Gregg Morton, the general counsel of Florida’ Public Employees Relations Commission told WLRN by email.

“But we will collect them going forward with the new law starting in October, when those provisions become effective and other unions file their registration renewals,” he said.

Florida is one of few states that has the right to join a union enshrined in the state constitution, alongside New York, Missouri and Illinois. The same section of the Florida Constitution also makes Florida a right-to-work state, meaning that no worker can be forced to pay union dues, even if they benefit from contracts negotiated by a union.

Only 5.6% of Florida workers were represented by a union in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the eighth-lowest ranking state in the country. The average across all states is 10.7% of workers.

Police, firefighters and corrections unions carved out

The law’s disparate treatment of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers unions has raised legal complaints in the courts from public unions, including the AFSCME statewide union and the Florida Education Association, a statewide association of teachers unions.

Police, firefighters and correction officers do not have to reach the 60% dues-paying threshold to stay active, and their employer can continue to deduct fees from each paycheck.

The justification presented by Republican lawmakers who passed the law — including Governor Ron DeSantis — was that it was intended to “protect” the paychecks of workers. Yet the law conspicuously left police and firefighters, carved out of those “paycheck protections.” Those unions represent some of the Republican governor’s most vocal supporters.

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia
News Service of Florida
State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia sponsored SB 256 and said he feels like the bill will only strengthen public sector unions. He also said he "cannot in good conscience" subject police and firefighter unions to the same provisions as teachers and other public unions impacted by the new law.

“I guess they think if they lie we won’t notice. But we do,” said Deborah Jackson, a Miami-Dade Department of Solid Waste Management employee who is active with AFSCME. “You can’t just choose certain departments and say ‘we’re not gonna touch ‘em.’ If you’re gonna touch one you touch all, and if not you just don’t. That’s equal opportunity and that’s fairness.”

In the March hearing at a Florida Senate committee, Ingoglia, the bill sponsor, said the professions were carved out because “anecdotally” he has seen that police, firefighters and correction officers unions already have high rates of participation and engagement.

Ingoglia went on to say the state “cannot in good conscience” ask a police officer or a firefighter to undergo an extra step to pay their union dues. Many work second or third shifts, he said.

“I just cannot and they will not do that,” said Ingoglia. “They are they going out every morning or every time they leave the door and they don't know if they're coming home. They are literally putting their lives on the line for us.”

The senator, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, conceded that publicly employed nurses and doctors often work second or third shifts as well, but stressed that “they’re usually in one central location, not dispersed all over counties and areas like police and firefighters are.” For other professions not carved out of the law — like those for teachers and sanitation workers — Ingoglia suggested an ideological opposition to government agencies deducting dues from paychecks.

“We don't think that government should be collecting the dues and dispersing the dues,” he said.

DeSantis echoed the sentiment in comments at an event in May.

“That’s not appropriate to have automatic deductions,” said DeSantis. “If you want to do it, you can write a check and hand it to them. What this does is relieve the pressure off the individual teacher or employee.”

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, a statewide union with over 30,000 members, has voiced frustration over this aspect of the new law. The police union filed a challenge to a state at the Division of Administrative Hearings in late June, saying that it has been left unclear if 911 operators and dispatchers are subjected to new “paycheck protections” under the new law, or not. The union represents police officers and other staff that work in law enforcement agencies.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declined to temporarily block the new law before it went into effect, after hearing arguments for a federal lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association. The association’s complaint was over the law’s new paycheck reduction restrictions and a separate section that requires union members to fill out a government-worded membership form.

A separate lawsuit has been brought in state courts by AFSCME members in Miami Beach and North Miami Beach; and Professional Managers and Supervisors Association union members in Deerfield Beach, Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach. On Tuesday, Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh declined to temporarily block the part of the law that prevents automatic paycheck deductions for paying dues.

Both lawsuits are still pending.

AFSCME Local 199’s labor contract with Miami-Dade County was ratified by union members during the late-June drive, ensuring they will keep contracts and benefits in place at least through 2026.

That is, so long as the union hits the 60% for dues paying members by October.

“Now is the time that we have to realize that our very livelihood is at stake,” said Brown, the union president. “The reality is we still need to sign up more. All the unions are all hands on deck right now.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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