Under fire from rival, Teamsters Union says it will file charge against Department of Corrections
Teamsters Local 2011, which represents an estimated 1,000 of the more than 16,000 corrections and probations officers, said Tuesday it is in the process of filing an unfair labor practice charge against the Florida Department of Corrections to protest a policy that allows the agency to fire prison guards and probation officers without cause.
The union, which is under fire from the rival union the Police Benevolent Association, has been at an impasse in negotiations with the agency over a new labor contract, which expires on June 30. The Teamsters say the Florida Legislature rejected their request to exempt them from a state law that allows newly-hired or newly promoted employees who are on a one-year probationary status from being fired. The Teamsters argue the rule allowed the agency to "fire an officer without cause" without access to the grievance or mediation process.
The department would not comment on the pending dispute, said spokesman McKinley Lewis.
Matt Puckett of the PBA confirmed Tuesday that his union is aggressively pursuing the labor contract to replace the Teamsters in representing the FDC officers. The PBA previously had the contract but lost it. Last year, it notified the agency that it is seeking petitions and has conducted a survey of officers gauging their interest on switching unions.
"We're going to run a campaign,'' Puckett said.
Meanwhile, as the fate of the state's corrections officers has been the focus of numerous news reports and critical audits in the last year, the Teamsters have been all but silent.
The Miami Herald's series "Cruel and Unusual" and "Beyond Punishment" uncovered inmate abuse, increases in use of force by officers against inmates, and cover-ups of abusive behavior by prison officials. Three independent audits, including one financed by the Florida Legislature, described dangerously low staffing levels at all state prisons, 12- and 16-hour work shifts, unsafe working conditions, and a culture that conditioned officers to augment their pay with overtime and illegal smuggling of contraband into prison facilities.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has said that the agency loses about 1,400 officers a year because of poor working conditions and low pay. She acknowledged that, as a result, violent incidents involving inmates and staff have escalated, and contraband is at an all time high. In the last year, Jones also fired or forced 1,080 corrections officers or staff to resign, 279 more than the year before.
During the session, Jones asked lawmakers to finance the addition of 734 additional officers to allow the agency to transition from 12-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts. The Legislature rejected that request but did give Jones $12.5 million to hire 215 additional officers. Jones now says that -- through some accounting shifts including filling jobs she kept vacant to pay for overtime -- she will be able to fill 4,000 positions, including those lost because of attrition.
Throughout the debate, the Teamsters negotiated its contract but never publicly called for a change in working conditions or salaries. On Tuesday, the Teamsters said they will protest the contract imposed by the Legislature as it relates to firing officers.
The language that the state of Florida has forced into the contract penalizes correctional and probation officers by taking away their union protection should they be unable to perform new duties after a job promotion, and allows the FDOC to fire an officer without reason and without the ability to challenge the termination through the grievance and arbitration process,” said Ken Wood, Teamsters International Vice President in a statement.
“This discourages officers from applying for a promotion – thinking that if they are promoted, they are at risk of losing their entire careers for up to one year without any reason,” Wood said. “Our men and women, who work hard every day, deserve to maintain their union representation and protections. Therefore, it is essential for the Teamsters Local 2011 to consider filing an unfair labor practice with the Florida Public Employees Commission to protect officers and their rights under Chapter 447 of the Florida statutes.”