By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Potentially setting the stage for a legal fight, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a bill that will place additional restrictions on public-employee unions, including preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.
DeSantis signed the bill (SB 256) during an event with other state leaders in Miami. While the changes would affect a variety of public-employee unions, much of the attention has focused on teachers unions, which heavily backed DeSantis’ opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, in last year’s gubernatorial election.
The Florida Education Association union in March also filed a legal challenge against the state Department of Education over rules carrying out a controversial 2022 law that placed requirements on schools related to books and other materials.
“The education unions have been turned into political weapons,” Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said during Tuesday’s event. “They’ve been spreading misinformation on things like the book-ban hoax that we have succinctly debunked, but we also want to make sure that teachers, at the end of the day, have money that’s going into their pockets.”
The Florida Education Association quickly announced that it will hold a news conference Wednesday to detail its “next steps, including litigation, in response to SB 256.”
“This new law grossly oversteps in trying to silence teachers, staff, professors and most other public employees,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement. “We will not go quietly — our students and our professions are simply too important.”
The Republican-controlled House passed the bill April 26, nearly a month after the measure was approved by the Senate.
Among other things, the bill prevents dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks, forcing union members to make separate payments. Also, it requires gauging how many eligible employees are dues-paying union members. If fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members, unions will have to be recertified as bargaining agents.
In addition, it will allow public employers to challenge union applications to renew registrations as bargaining agents if the employers think the applications are inaccurate.
Also, it will require unions to have audited financial statements, which will need to be made available to members.
Unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters are exempt from the new requirements.
Legislative supporters of the bill argued it would increase transparency and make unions stronger. DeSantis on Tuesday touted the elimination of dues deductions from paychecks.
“Now you’re in a situation where people get their paycheck. If they want to then take a check and write it to the union, they have every right to do it,” DeSantis said. “But they’ll be doing it with their eyes wide open, and they’ll know exactly how much money they’re talking about.”
Similar bills were proposed repeatedly in recent years, but issues such as the elimination of dues deductions did not pass. Workers for Opportunity, a group that supports such proposals in numerous states, said Tuesday it had worked on the issue in Florida since 2019.
“Democracy works, and this is union democracy at its best,” Vincent Vernuccio, senior labor policy adviser for the group, said in a statement. “With this new law, Gov. DeSantis and state legislators are empowering Florida teachers to chart their own path forward and requiring more transparency from the unions that have the privilege of representing those teachers.”
But Democrats said the bill was an attack on unions.
“The Legislature put hurdles in the way of many public unions, taking away voluntary automatic deductions and making it harder for them to exist by adding more red tape,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Davie, said in a statement Tuesday. “We can trust teachers to make their own personal choices in how they spend their hard-earned money, and attempting to silence the groups that advocate for better pay and better working conditions is unconstitutional and undemocratic.”
Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, described the bill’s changes as “attempts at union-busting and decertifying public teachers unions across Florida” and said it will worsen a teacher shortage.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.