TALLAHASSEE — With a national wind at their back and a Republican majority in their grip, the Florida Legislature is going after unions.
Only days into this year's session, House and Senate lawmakers have taken up three bills that will weaken the teacher's labor organization, restrict the political clout of all public unions and reduce the benefits of all state workers.
On Thursday, a House committee voted 12-6 along party lines for a bill that prevents public unions from using payroll deductions to collect union dues. The Senate passed a teacher pay bill that, among other things, eliminates tenure for teachers hired after July 1 and ties their pay to student performance. And both chambers are moving bills that restrict the collective bargaining clout of unions.
Union representatives say the bevy of bills show that the Republican-controlled Legislature is capitalizing on a national anti-union sentiment.
"What you're seeing in Florida isn't an idea that is being hatched in Florida,'' said Ron Meyer, lawyer and lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the teachers' union. "They're simply trying to apply a national square peg into the Florida round hole.''
Lawmakers and business groups have worried that the bills could trigger chaos at the Capitol similar to Wisconsin, where lawmakers this week voted to end collective bargaining rights of state workers.
But Meyer said it is highly unlikely to happen in Florida because the state imposes strict fines, withholds pension and even salary benefits if union members strike or engage in political activity during work hours.
Also, unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, union membership in Florida is voluntary, and the state further restricts public unions by giving the final say on any contract dispute to the public employer.
Florida unions can't strike or seek binding arbitration to resolve a dispute.
Despite those limits, Florida's union members have arrived in Tallahassee every day this week to express their anger at proposals aimed at limiting their benefits.
"This is nothing more than an attempt to annihilate our voice,'' said Jeff McAdams, president of the Gator Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police in Gainesville.
He said the series of "union-busting" bills have been cloaked as concern for taxpayers and have made him "ashamed" to be a Republican.
He told the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday that the bill to prohibit public unions from using payroll deductions to collect dues, "goes a lot further than eliminating dues'' and creates an "administrative nightmare for the unions — which is another way of busting the unions."
But Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, the House sponsor, countered by saying his goal was not to hurt unions but to increase members' freedom.
"It's empowering them to say, 'You know what? I don't agree with what my union does politically. . . . I don't want to support their candidates for office,' '' Dorworth said.
The Senate version of the union dues bill is also on the fast track.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the bill's sponsor, denied that the bill is intended to silence the unions by prohibiting payroll deductions for political activity.
"The taxpayers of the state of Florida are basically saying let's get out of the business of collecting dues for union members,'' he said "Let the unions do it themselves. If they're doing such a great job with their members, I think they'll do fine."
As the Senate committee met, about two dozen protestors stood outside the hearing room with bright blue masking tape over their mouths as a protest to what they said was the bill's attempt to silence their political voice.
"In Tallahassee, politicians shouldn't try to tell me how to spend my money. It is my paycheck, my choice," said Jayne Walker, a supervisor of a city bus company from Central Florida and dues-paying member of the Amalgamated Transit Workers union.
"If this bill passes, the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and all the other big businesses, special interests, will be the only voices in Florida politics,'' she said. "They have the right to form associations, to pool their resources and participate in politics, and so should I and my fellow co-workers."
Scott Whittle, a teacher from Lincoln High in Tallahassee, said he believes the bills are "revenge" for the unions' fierce opposition to Thrasher's bill last year to eliminate teacher tenure.
The bill was vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, and Thrasher is former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
In the November election, the teachers' union spent more than $3.8 million on political campaigns, including a campaign to unseat Thrasher, and it backed Democrat Alex Sink for governor.
Another bill, by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would require unions to have 50 percent membership from their worker class to be eligible to negotiate in collective bargaining.
McAdams urged both the House and Senate committees not to "vilify'' workers.
"It's difficult enough doing the job we do on the street and we thought the Legislature had our backs,'' he said. "We find out that they don't."