Can Florida teachers walk out too? It’s not a good idea, unions say

Teachers protest outside the Nov. 14 Hillsborough County School Board meeting, led by union president Jean Clements.  [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Teachers protest outside the Nov. 14 Hillsborough County School Board meeting, led by union president Jean Clements. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Published Apr. 3, 2018|Updated Apr. 3, 2018

As thousands of their colleagues in other states are walking out over low pay this week, some Florida teachers are wondering if they should be doing the same.

The list of grievances is long. A state budget that steered millions to school safety will mean less for teacher salaries. Lawmakers just passed legislation that weakens teachers unions, and they continue to shift money to charter schools and state-sponsored scholarships that pay private school tuition.

But Florida teachers are being advised by their state teachers union not to conduct walkouts like the ones staged by their peers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. It's against the law, the Florida Education Association cautions in a message it updated on its website Tuesday.

In Florida, "the activist options for teachers and education staff professionals are somewhat limited," the group's statement says. "Walking off the job or reporting to work late is not an appropriate action and it comes with harsh consequences. It is important for all FEA members to follow the law."

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The statement cites the state Constitution and Florida statutes, specifically chapter 447.505, which states that public employee organizations or anyone acting on their behalf are prohibited from participating in a strike or anything that looks like one. They also are barred from instigating strikes, or even supporting one.

Some Florida teachers, meanwhile, have taken to social media to try to organize some kind of unified action on pay and essentially going around their union leadership. On Monday, an AP world history teacher from the Miami-Dade public school system launched a Facebook group, Florida Educators United, with the message: "As underpaid teachers from West Virginia, to Oklahoma, to Kentucky, and Arizona use social media to organize both from within, and independently of, established unions, this group seeks to unite Florida educators and their supporters to raise awareness and encourage activism amongst public school teachers, parents, and students from across the Sunshine state."

Nadia Zananiri, the organizer, said she would rather the unions take action, "but they aren't. … We have lost faith in our unions to accomplish anything."

The group had attracted more than 500 members by Tuesday night.

FEA president Joanne McCall emphasized the union's support for teachers in other states, but said the guidance on FEA's website was updated to make teachers aware of the harsh penalties for striking. It's illegal to strike in West Virginia and Oklahoma, she said, but those states don't have harsh, spelled-out penalties like Florida.

For example, a Florida teacher who strikes could be terminated, have their certification revoked and lose all retirement benefits. A union organizing a strike could be decertified, lose the right to deduct dues from members' paychecks and face a monetary penalty of $20,000 per day.

McCall also pointed out that teachers in Florida do get raises, while those in West Virginia have not received a raise in years.

"You always have extreme pockets on social media that are going one way or another way," McCall said. "The reality is, I think, my teachers in this state understand the difference. When people are calling for it, there are people who don't know the difference in what our laws and penalties are."

Though FEA's guidance advises teachers on what they shouldn't do, McCall said they can make a difference through elections.

"The only way we're going to make change is at the ballot box," she said. "It always feels good to make a rally…but at the end of the day, what does that gain you as you try to move a cause?"

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The discontent in other states, however, combined with recent legislation in Tallahassee, is driving up union membership in Tampa Bay and Florida. McCall said her group now has 3,200 more members compared to this time last year.

"It has awakened this union," she said. "People are joining at record numbers."

The teachers effecting change in other states, "are demonstrating the power of numbers," said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo."It's making my job a little easier."

The Pinellas union gained 80 members last month, nearly double the monthly average, which puts it over the new state-mandated benchmark. Now, under the law, teachers unions must enroll at least 50 percent of eligible employees as dues paying members or risk being decertified.

United School Employees of Pasco is seeing the same rise in membership. Since the union began its "50 for 50" membership campaign, Pasco has around 150 new union members, said president Don Peace. The campaign's name refers to the new state membership requirement and the 50th anniversary of then 1968 Florida teacher walkout.

"I think people are understanding the importance of a union as a bargaining agent, what we represent," Peace said. It's "the ability that we have to negotiate with the district on working conditions, contract language and monies compared to a district simply imposing their will on the employees."

Union membership is also up in Hillsborough County, where the union might take a vote next week to "work to contract" until it can reach an agreement with the district. The two sides are at an impasse after bargaining has stalled for nearly a year.

"Teachers have other avenues they can use without violating the law," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "They can show up at School Board meetings and have their voices be heard. They can pursue the appropriate remedies."

Still, Hillsborough increasingly is lagging behind other districts in pay, especially for new teachers.

"I get calls from five to 10 people a week, telling me, 'I'm going to Pinellas," Baxter-Jenkins said.

Florida's situation will become clearer over the spring and summer as school districts wrestle with what they say is a severe funding shortage.

Gov. Rick Scott initially set out to increase unrestricted school funding by $152 per student. But because lawmakers steered millions to school safety in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, that per-student increase ended up being 47 cents.

Superintendents say those funds will be largely eaten up by rising fuel costs, employee pensions and insurance, and various state mandates. And some have already warned that there will be little left for teacher raises.

Though no one has walked out, teachers and other Florida educators haven't exactly been silent on the issue. The FEA and local teachers unions were vocal in the final weeks of the legislative session as lawmakers crafted a budget. Teachers in Hillsborough County have been showing up to protest at School Board meetings. And superintendents, in an usual show of unity, jointly announced their displeasure.

None of it moved the needle, however. Lawmakers and the governor's office insist that they have budgeted an adequate amount for education when the fiscal year begins July 1.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.