Activists rally against Scott, GOP legislature over a slew of issues

03/28/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Since the start of the legislative session, droves of people unhappy with Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature have been spending Friday afternoons rallying against numerous state policies. Protesters don’t think they’ll be changing the governor’s mind any time soon, but they do hope to draw attention from fellow voters.

Republican State Representative Dana Young’s Tampa office sits near the corner of Bayshore and Bay-to-Bay. Protesters gathered here Friday during rush hour. Earlier that day, Young and her colleagues in the state House voted to bar state workers from having their union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. To the more than 100 gathered outside Young’s office, that was just the latest outrage.

"That is a true union busting bill. We can deduct ... for the Hillsborough Education Foundation, we can deduct for charity, we can deduct for insurances, but now we can't deduct for an organization that we want to belong to which is our union."

That’s Elaine Fess, a Hillsborough County teacher. The big reason she came out was to voice her anger over Senate Bill 736, also known as “Son of 6,” which ends teacher tenure and links their pay to student test scores.

"This is an incredible attack on the public school teachers of Florida. The governor has made it so that we have been stripped of our tenure rights and tenure is really misunderstood. Tenure means you have a due process before you're fired. And he, in essence, has put everyone on one year contracts in the state. That really destroys a lot of what the teachers have been able to achieve as middle class citizens."

Many passing drivers honked their horns in support of those who lined the sidewalk holding signs reflecting disgust with Governor Scott and the GOP-led legislature. Retired teacher Flo Felicione stood among fellow protesters waving a placard at passing cars.

"My sign says 'jobs, jobs, going, going, gone"

She said her husband, a disabled veteran, was sitting across the street; he felt he had to come despite his disability. Felicione said they’re here not only in support of teachers of union workers, but also to voice concern over the uncertainty, if not doom, younger generations are feeling in the wake of economic calamity.

"The other day my granddaughter, who's a registered nurse, is rallying with me. She's not here today but it's because she has patients to care for, but she is very much concerned about it and she says that 'grandma, I'm worried.' She said, 'Grandma, I don't want to have children because there's nothing for my children.' "

The uncertain economy and outrage over the legislature’s treatment of the state’s workforce weren’t the only things drawing people to Friday’s rally, which took place in sync with several others throughout Florida. Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesperson Ramsey Kilic said he and his cohort turned out because of a proposed Arizona-style immigration law.

"We have a lot of immigrants in the American Muslim community. One of the things we're really concerned about is, obviously, that there is an issue with our immigration laws at the federal level and that we do need to do things as a nation to reform those but, going about it in a way where the state's take control of those rights and racial profiling can become an issue is where our main concern is."

The movement started with the March 8th Awake the State rallies, which brought out thousands of protesters across the state. In Tampa, an estimated 2,000 flocked to a downtown park. While it’s often one issue or group that sparks a movement, this one has drawn a diverse crowd that’s upset over a whole slew of issues. Activist Pamela Hewett, one of the event’s speakers, said what happens at the state level effects everyone, and strength in numbers is vital.

"We're in a war to help save our small business and our middle class and our teachers and our unions. A war that, if we do not talk to everyone we meet about it, it'll kill us and push us down like corporate America wants us to be. We'll be too tired, too busy working multiple jobs, too distressed to care anymore, but guess what Dana, guess what Governor Scott, I will not give up, they will not give up. We will not give up."

Union activist Jason Smith was one of the rally’s organizers. He belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. While bills in the state legislature targeting unions don’t directly affect his line of work, he said his wife’s a teacher, so the state’s attitude toward public employees has impacted his household.

"I am directly affected financially and last year in Pasco County they changed the benefits program. We pay now 100 percent for dental where we didn't before and they also made the teachers pay more in their health care benefits. This is after 3 or 4 years of no pay increases."

He said the extremely broad range of interests represented at the rally don’t confuse the message of the movement. Instead, Smith said, it underscores that few people are in favor of the so-called reforms Governor Scott and the GOP-dominated legislature are championing.

"The only people in this state right now who are having their voice heard are the corporations and, you know, less than 2 percent of corporations in Florida pay corporate income tax. Yet you're going to have the teachers pay an additional tax by having them pay pensions? It's about priorities and that's why I'm here. I'm passionate about getting our priorities straight because our priorities are not in order right now."

Smith said that he thinks the movement has gained momentum, you wouldn’t know it from the lack of media coverage.

"When we had the big Awake the State, we had nearly 2,000 people show up in Gaslight Park downtown and the next day the front page of the St. Pete Times showed 'Tea Party in Tallahassee' was only a couple hundred people. You know what I think about the coverage? It stinks. It hasn't been good and they are blackballing us and they need to come out to these events and listen to the voices of the teachers and the average people who are being negatively affected by these bills."

Hillsborough County Teacher Elaine Fess said news coverage of state government and its critics has been dismal, which is why she and so many others are taking it upon themselves to get the word out.

"Anything we can do to heighten the visibility that we have and the visibility so they might be a little curious about what is happening in the state that causes all these people to be standing out on a corner all the time."

The next rally in the Tampa Bay area is scheduled for Friday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Organizers say they chose the major league baseball stadium because Governor Rick Scott is scheduled to throw the first pitch of the Tampa Bay Rays’ home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

State Representative Dana Young declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement that said, “Regardless of whether we agree or disagree on a particular issue, the beauty of our democracy is that we all have a voice and deserve to be heard and treated with respect."

Previous WMNF news coverage of Awake the State

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