Judge rules against police and fire unions challenging Florida’s new anti-union law

Labor unions
Labor unions. Via nebari / iStock for WMNF News

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — An administrative law judge Friday rejected a challenge by police and firefighter unions to the way the state is carrying out a new law that placed additional restrictions on unions representing government employees.

Judge Robert Cohen issued a 33-page order dismissing the challenge filed in July by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and later joined by the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Teamsters and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The controversial law, approved this spring by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, includes restrictions such as preventing union dues from being deducted from public workers’ paychecks. But it exempted unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters from the restrictions.

The public safety unions, however, challenged rules that the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission developed to carry out the law. They said the rules would improperly apply the restrictions to bargaining units made up of civilian workers — such as dispatchers and 911 operators — represented by the law enforcement and firefighter unions.

The challenge contended the exemptions from the restrictions were intended to apply to all workers represented by public safety unions — not just law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.

“In an apparent disregard for and in contravention of the plain and unambiguous language of the exemptions … the proposed rules impermissibly limit the scope of the exemptions based on the classification of members within individual ‘bargaining units’ rather than applying the exemptions to the employee organization as a whole,” the PBA’s lawyers wrote in the challenge. “Under the proposed rules, the PBA and the members of the individual bargaining units comprised only of civilians, would not be exempt.”

But Cohen on Friday backed the Public Employees Relations Commission, saying it did not overstep its legal authority and that the rules were not “arbitrary or capricious.”

“It is undisputed that civilian personnel who support and work closely with law enforcement and firefighters, such as dispatchers, EMTs, paramedics and helicopter pilots are vital to the success of these law enforcement and firefighting agencies,” Cohen wrote. “The Florida Legislature could have specifically exempted these personnel by clear and unambiguous language, but chose not to do so. As essential as these personnel are to the performance of law enforcement and firefighter duties, the PBA and the intervenors (the other public-safety unions) would be well served by approaching the Legislature to clarify or amend (the law) to include such essential personnel in the coming session.”

The case at the state Division of Administrative Hearings was one of at least four challenges filed by unions to the new law. The others were filed in state and federal courts by unions representing educators and municipal workers. So far, none of the challenges have resulted in blocking the law.

In addition to preventing dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks, the law requires union members to fill out new government-worded membership forms and will require unions to be recertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.

Supporters of the changes said they would bring more transparency for union members. But opponents accused the Legislature of “union busting.”

GOP lawmakers were widely viewed as exempting public safety unions from the restrictions because organizations such as the PBA and the firefighters union have supported DeSantis and other Republicans politically. Meanwhile, for example, teachers’ unions have been among DeSantis’ biggest critics.

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