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Angry over pay, correctional officers ditch union

TALLAHASSEE — Frustrated by stagnant pay, pension plan changes and fears of more privately run prisons, Florida correctional officers fired their union Thursday.

After more than three decades, the rank-and-file ousted the Florida Police Benevolent Association and chose the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to represent them instead.

"These are tough times, and they wanted a tough union to represent them," union general president James Hoffa said in a conference call.

Prison officers, like other state workers, have not had an across the board pay raise in nearly six years. They also must contribute 3 percent of their pay toward their pensions for the first time, a legislative decision that the PBA and other unions are fighting in court.

Kimberly Schultz, a Miami probation officer for the past 16 years who took part in the conference call, said she voted to switch unions because she wanted "really strong representation."

"We deserve respect and recognition that we don't feel we're getting," Schultz said.

In paper ballots counted by the Public Employee Relations Commission, the Teamsters received 4,097 votes and the PBA 3,015. About 19,000 officers work for the Department of Corrections.

The newly chartered Teamsters Local 2011, based in Tampa and led by Ken Wood, will begin representing officers on Dec. 1.

"They voted for change, and they got it," said PBA executive director Matt Puckett. "The economic times got the better of us."

Two weeks ago, the PBA for a second time succeeded in court in blocking the prison system from privatizing all South Florida prisons, or nearly one-fourth of the giant system, the nation's third largest.

Hundreds of officers have resigned in recent months, some in anticipation of losing their jobs to a private contractor.

The ousted union said it would continue to fight the privatization venture, now before the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

The PBA became a political powerhouse over the past two decades and union political committees spent more than $2 million to reward their allies, including former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and legislators in both parties.

Every legislative session at the state Capitol, PBA-sponsored rallies for better pay and benefits were must-attend events for Tallahassee politicians.

The union supported Democrat Alex Sink over Republican Rick Scott in the 2010 race for governor, and it ran a TV ad that accused Scott of endangering public safety by claiming he could cut $1 billion from the prison budget.

Among the public employees already represented by the Teamsters in Florida are county workers in Pasco and Hernando counties and members of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

The Teamsters filed an ethics complaint against Scott earlier this year, accusing him of a conflict of interest because a private prison vendor donated $25,000 to his inaugural celebration. The Commission on Ethics dismissed the complaint.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Angry over pay, correctional officers ditch union 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 11:17pm]
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