It's not Wisconsin or Indiana by any stretch, but Florida still has tensions running high between public employee unions and Republican state legislators. While the education reforms that would end teacher tenure were passed by the House on Wednesday and sent to Gov. Rick Scott, a less visible battle is raging and will be more difficult for the union-busters to win. A controversial measure to eliminate requirements that public employers collect union dues only squeaked through the Senate Community Affairs Committee this week, a hopeful sign that the stampede to run over the very people — from teachers to police officers — who make government run may be losing steam. While unions need to remain open to reforms on pensions and other matters, so should lawmakers be mindful not to infringe on workers' rights.
Two Republicans joined two Democrats in the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Monday to oppose SB 830. While the bill still passed, 5-4, the discussion, including comments by some senators who voted for it, showed there is limited interest in ending the policy that government agencies automatically deduct union dues from employees. The practice benefits both the union and the employee, since unions don't have to employ an expensive dues-collection apparatus, and employees don't have to write regular checks. And since Florida is a right-to-work state, no employee is required to join a union or pay dues.
Bill sponsors, including Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, have contended this is not an anti-union bill, just a plan to get government out of collecting dues. But Thrasher has made clear his animosity toward the teachers unions for their role in thwarting last year's education reform bill. And others backing the bill, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, claim they've heard from employees angry about how their union dues are spent. No such employees, however, testified before the committee.
Thrasher's bill also would force unions to reimburse members who object to part of their dues going to political contributions; and every year employees would have to provide written authorization to have their dues go toward political activities. This would further erode the influence of unions like the Florida Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and disproportionately hurt Democratic candidates. And it ignores the fact that such employees already have recourse: drop their union affiliation.
Such blatant political maneuvering only serves to undermine the rest of the Republican agenda on reforming public-sector jobs. For instance, the governor's desire that state workers contribute toward their pensions may make good fiscal sense, but when it is advocated in an environment of fierce Republican hostility toward unions, it appears more like political payback than a painful but necessary sacrifice. Some senators clearly get that; hopefully more lawmakers will too.