Florida Politics

‘An outright attack on labor unions’ — or ensuring more accountability?

House Republicans have proposed a law to ensure labor unions are financially supported by at least a majority of the workers the union is supposed to represent.
House Republicans have proposed a law to ensure labor unions are financially supported by at least a majority of the workers the union is supposed to represent. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Florida’s public-sector labor unions — which represent thousands of workers ranging from school teachers to public utility linemen — would have to convince their members to pay up or else risk being shut down, under a controversial plan by House Republicans that is now headed to the floor despite little chance at becoming law.

HB 11 is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, but it drew a resounding backlash from Democrats and labor leaders who say the measure is nothing more than a politically motivated attempt to bust up unions.

It passed the Government Accountability Committee on a 14-8, party-line vote Wednesday, its second of only two committee stops.

It’s an outright attack on labor unions.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, argues his proposal is about “transparency and democracy” because it would ensure labor unions serving government workers are accountable to and financially supported by at least a majority of the workers the union is supposed to represent.

“I think that’s a good thing to be responsive,” Plakon said, adding: “Public-sector unions should have to operate in a transparent fashion, under democratic majority rule. ... This empowers members of the bargaining unit and it also pushes the unions to have to respect their members by asking for dues.”

But Florida is a right-to-work state, so employees cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union. Union leaders say Plakon’s proposal contradicts that state law, and it would essentially force labor organizations to continuously “campaign” for enough dues-paying members — or risk being shut down.

“I think it’s very clear that this bill is about politics, not about policy,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said. “This bill is about union-busting, plain and simple.”

Plakon’s bill would require public-sector unions — except those representing firefighters and law enforcement or corrections officers — to report annually how many employees are eligible for representation by the union and then how many of them do and don’t pay annual dues. If the union failed to report those figures or if less than 50 percent of eligible employees paid dues to the union, the organization would be decertified as the official collective bargaining entity for those workers.

Plakon said “the state has a public policy interest to not risk labor unrest for unions involved in public safety,” which is why first-responders were given an exception in his bill.

If they’re paying dues, they [the unions] are being responsive to their members.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood

It’s unclear how many union workers the bill would effect. In 2016, about 7 percent of Florida’s workforce — about 574,000 people — was represented by a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure includes both public- and private-sector union members.

Critics of Plakon’s bill objected not only to the “arbitrary” cut-off unions would face if they lacked enough dues-paying members but also the “carve-out” for the state’s first-responders.

“This is divide and conquer. ... It’s an outright attack on labor unions,” Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, said. “The right to bargain should be upheld and shouldn’t be interfered with.”

A slew of labor organizations — including the Florida Education Association and the AFL-CIO, declared their opposition to the measure, as did more than 50 individual union members who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Only a few, pro-business groups support it, such as the Florida Chamber and Americans for Prosperity. “We need to ensure that all unions are operating in the sunshine and that they garner [majority] support to justify their claims to represent” Florida workers, AFP state director Chris Hudson said in a statement.

Although the measure has riled up the left, its chances at becoming law this year are narrow. The Senate version (SB 1292) has been assigned to four committees — a high hurdle for any bill to clear — and its first stop, Commerce & Tourism, is chaired by a Democrat. It hasn’t been taken up yet, and Boynton Beach Democratic Rep. Joseph Abruzzo — who was a senator last term — expects it won’t be.

“The chance of this passing is none,” Abruzzo said. “Why do we spend countless hours debating a policy and why are we putting members on the board on a policy that is not going to happen?”

Rich Templin, the legislative and political director for the Florida AFL-CIO, argued enough safeguards exist to ensure unions are accountable and supported by members. He questioned why lawmakers wanted to hold unions “to a higher standard than any other democratic enterprise we have in the state” — including the Legislature itself — by equating the paying of money with support for a cause.

“I would challenge each of you to go back to your own districts,” Templin told the House members, “can you guarantee me right now that you have contributions from over 50 percent of the voters that you are here representing — which is what the labor organizations are being asked to do?”

Plakon said: “If they’re paying dues, they [the unions] are being responsive to their members and I think that’s really the most important thing.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark