Florida teachers statewide began gearing up for rallies and protests as state lawmakers close in on monumental changes to how teachers are hired, fired, paid and evaluated.
And they're keeping a weather eye on Wisconsin, where thousands of unionized teachers and other public employees have descended on the Capitol for a seventh straight day as lawmakers seek to curb collective bargaining rights.
"I think they're a test case," said Matt Richardson, who teaches world history and American government at Pinellas Park High School. "If Wisconsin is successful … it would not surprise me at all if it moved to Florida and other states."
Teachers unions across the state, including Pinellas, are planning rallies in their hometowns on March 4, the Friday before the legislative session begins. Rallies to support teachers, firefighters and police officers are being organized around the state for March 8.
If some of the current legislative proposals don't change, "do I believe public employees will descend on Tallahassee? Yes," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union. "People are organizing."
So far, legislation to curb collective bargaining rights has not surfaced in Florida. But Republican leaders in Nevada, Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan and elsewhere are calling for measures to restrict bargaining rights, according to published reports. And in some of those same states, as well as others, lawmakers also are bringing back new versions of controversial teacher bills that failed last year or introducing new ones that promise to revamp the teaching profession.
In Florida, a new version of SB 6 — the teacher quality bill passed by the Legislature, vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist last year — is moving fast through legislative committees. Gov. Rick Scott has said he would have signed it.
Another would require all public employees to chip in up to 5 percent of their pay towards their pensions. On Monday, Gov. Scott said the latter bill was all about solving the state's budget shortfall.
"What I'm focused on is making sure we have a pension plan that is fair to taxpayers, fair to the recipients and fair to the state," he said. He vowed to "treat the taxpayers of this state fairly and make sure all government workers are treated the same as those in the private sector."
Teachers union officials also see little fairness in a new bill filed by Sen. John Thrasher, former chairman of the state Republican Party. It would ban school districts and other public entities from withholding union dues from paychecks — even if that's what employees want.
"Employees should have the right to have deductions taken out of their paychecks for all kinds of things," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "It's a real assault on people's personal freedom. It's not just a union thing."
If the bill passed, she said, her union would be forced to spend money and time to arrange for bank transfers, just to keep afloat.
Richardson, the Pinellas Park High teacher, was less polite.
"That's designed to kill the union," he said.
"We have to make people aware of what's going on," Richardson added. "Hopefully it raises some public awareness that we're working our tails off for our kids and we are not getting the kind of respect that dedicated public servants ought to get."
Aron Zions, a social studies teacher at Pierce Middle School in Tampa, said he left a higher-paying job in the private sector to teach. Good benefits and a pension helped to make up for that sacrifice, he said.
"And we're the only ones under attack. Not policemen, not firemen."
Florida teachers are closely watching events in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating most unions members' rights to negotiate over pay, benefits or working conditions. He has also called for state workers to pay more for pensions and benefits, as well as withholding dues from government paychecks.
Many schools closed in the state last week because teachers are attending the rallies, with 1,000 teachers in Madison calling in sick.
Such walkouts are against the law in Florida. And the state Constitution makes it plain that unions have the right to bargain over "all terms and conditions of employment," including teacher evaluations, said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
But there are signs that some on Gov. Scott's transition team hope to change that. They recommended that teacher evaluations be removed from the bargaining process, limiting such negotiations to salaries and benefits.
Clements of Hillsborough said such efforts wouldn't help districts make the kind of progress her union has made in negotiating tough reforms on teacher pay and evaluation. She said she was working hard to prevent a full-blown battle in Tallahassee.
"I cannot predict what will happen if the Legislature (takes) such action," she said. "But I am telling you there are a lot of people like me who are hugely committed to preventing the need for anything like that from happening here."
Ford, too, said he'd rather talk than fight.
"These attacks are absolutely unnecessary," he said. "We can sit down at the bargaining table and work it out."
Times researcher John Martin and Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.