The Florida Police Benevolent Association challenges a proposed union rule

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

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — As Republican lawmakers this spring passed a controversial law to place additional restrictions on public-employee unions, they included an exemption for unions that represent law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters.

But the Florida Police Benevolent Association is challenging an agency’s proposal for carrying out the law, saying it leaves unanswered questions — including whether the new restrictions could apply to PBA members, such as dispatchers and 911 operators, who are not law-enforcement or correctional officers.

The PBA, which has about 30,000 members in Florida, filed the challenge Monday at the state Division of Administrative Hearings. It is targeting a proposed rule and a related “membership authorization” form published by the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, which is responsible for moving forward with the law.

Under the law, workers wanting to be part of unions will have to fill out the membership form, which requires various types of information and includes a message about Florida being a “right-to-work” state.

But the PBA challenge said the proposed rule is vague and threatens to improperly go beyond the law’s requirements. At least in part, the argument stems from concerns that some PBA members might not be exempt from the restrictions.

“Without clarification as to specifically posed questions relating to the scope and implementation of the rule, neither a public employee nor an employee organization such as PBA can understand which members must complete and return the membership form or whether an organization must receive a completed membership form prior to accepting a member and collecting dues,” the challenge said. “The proposed rule is subject to differing interpretations, and comments by PERC (the Public Employees Relations Commission) raise legitimate concerns as to whether PBA must comply despite the exemption language in the statute.”

The challenge is the latest twist in the controversy about the law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed May 9. Teachers unions and unions representing municipal workers in South Florida have filed lawsuits in federal and state courts challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday in a request by the Florida Education Association and other teachers’ unions for a preliminary injunction against parts of the law. That case alleges the law violates First Amendment, equal protection and contract rights.

In addition to requiring the membership authorization form, the law includes a series of other changes such as preventing public employees from having union dues deducted from their paychecks. Also, for example, the law 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.

The exemption for unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters has been a high-profile issue. Those unions have supported DeSantis and other Republicans politically, while teachers’ unions have been among DeSantis’ biggest critics.

But the PBA challenge this week seeks to have an administrative law judge reject the proposed rule, arguing that a lack of clarity “requires PBA and its members to guess as to its applicability.”

Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk has been assigned to the case.

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