TALLAHASSEE — A highly controversial measure opponents describe as "union-busting" legislation meant to target Florida public school teachers passed the Republican-led House Thursday along a near party-line vote, although it's unlikely to have any life in the Senate.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said his proposal, HB 11, "provides greater transparency, democracy and accountability to public-sector labor unions," but Democrats lined up on the House floor to question Republicans' motives for endorsing the bill.
"This bill targets teachers, state and local government employees, nurses, bus drivers and many others who serve us and care for us every day," Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee said. "And we're targeting them, because these organizations make political decisions that some people don't like. That is wrong."
Under the bill, any public-sector union — except those representing firefighters and law enforcement or corrections officers — would be automatically decertified if more than 50 percent of the workers they represent don't pay dues to the organization.
The unions would have to report to the state 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 fell short of the 50-percent mark in dues-paying members, it would be decertified as the official bargaining unit for those workers and have to go through the formal process of re-establishing itself, much like a new union does to form.
Florida is a right-to-work state, so employees cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union that represents them.
Although HB 11 easily passed the House by a 75-41 vote, the Senate version (SB 1292) has long odds of getting any traction. It hasn't been heard yet and the session's nearly half over. It was assigned to four committees — signaling it's not highly desired by leadership — and its first stop, Commerce & Tourism, is chaired by a Democrat.
In advocating for his bill during floor discussion Wednesday, Plakon said repeatedly he felt it was "wrong" to "have a small number of people imposing their will on a large group of people."
Citing only anecdotal evidence and providing no data or research to back up his claims, Plakon said some labor unions in Florida had only 2 percent or 3 percent of their members paying dues to the organization.
"Public-sector unions should have to operate in a more transparent fashion under time-honored, democratic, majority-rule principles where the union has to be responsive, or more responsive, to its members," Plakon said Thursday.
Several Democrats alleged Republicans were using the bill as a "disguise" to weaken unions — and specifically to go after the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. Last fall, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, called the union "evil" because it had challenged in court a Republican-backed, voucher-like program that helps low-income families afford private school.
"It's more bullying," House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, of Tampa, said of HB 11. "Stop bullying teachers. Stop bullying teachers' right to organization. Stop bullying teachers' voices."
"I have no idea what you're talking about with the teachers' union," Plakon replied to Democrats Wednesday. "Impugning those motives on why I'm doing the bill is simply not correct."
Asked for comment on the bill's passage, FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said only: "Why is the House wasting taxpayer money on a bill that isn't needed?"
Three Republicans — Thad Altman of Indialantic, Tom Goodson of Rockledge, and Rene Plasencia of Orlando — joined Democrats in voting against the bill. Two Democrats — Ausley and Jacksonville Rep. Kimberly Daniels — voted "yes" but appeared to have done so by accident. They changed their votes afterward, but the official vote count records them in support.
Outside of House Republicans, the only vocal supporter of HB 11 is Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has received funding from the Koch brothers and that lobbied aggressively for the bill.
"It's in the public's best interest for government unions to be held accountable and prove that as collective bargaining units they are appropriately empowered to speak for the workers they claim to represent," spokesman Andres Malave said in a statement. "It's reasonable to expect that government unions maintain at least 50 percent participation of actively paying dues members in order to remain certified by the state."
Plakon could not say how many unions would be decertified if the bill were enacted. "I don't think that's germane to this discussion," he said responding to a Democrat's question on Wednesday. (In 2016, about 7 percent of Florida's workforce — about 574,000 people — was represented by either a public- or private-sector union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Plakon said he excluded first-responders' and corrections officers' unions because he said there is "an extraordinary public policy interest in ensuring we don't have labor unrest among the people who protect us from harm."
When Democrats asked why teachers didn't merit the same consideration against labor unrest, Plakon responded: "No teacher runs in to a building when everyone else runs away." Democrats balked at that answer.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark