A group of Florida local teacher organizations and individual teachers — both members and non-members — joined the Florida Education Association on Monday in suing the state over changes in union certification law that took effect over the weekend.
'We're not feeling defeated. We're feeling angry and we're ready to do something about it. We're tired of being the target of legislators," said Melissa Rudd, Wakulla teacher organization president, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
The Wakulla Classroom Teachers Association is among a handful that faces the threat of not getting half of eligible teachers to join, as the new law requires. If it does not meet the mark, the association faces decertification, meaning it no longer would be able to collectively bargain on behalf of all local teachers.
Teacher collective bargaining is a right guaranteed in the Florida constitution, noted Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who is representing the plaintiffs. That right "cannot be diminished or impaired," he said, so any effort to take it away is unconstitutional.
That's one of the key points in the suit, filed in Leon County Circuit Court.
The suit also alleges that the Legislature violated the state's single subject requirement in HB 7055, the legislation that included the certification rules.
Meyer suggested the labor issue was improperly injected into the bill under the guise of being about "assignment of teachers," and said it had nothing to do with other elements of the measure. If the court agrees, he said, it might kill all aspects of the controversial omnibus legislation, which also included ideas such as private school scholarships for students who say they are bullied.
The complaint further states that teacher organizations were unfairly singled out for the certification measures, and no other groups that collectively bargain for employees were affected.
"Singling out members of the instructional staff of public school boards to be treated in a manner different than all other classes of public employees in the State violates their right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2, Florida Constitution," Meyer wrote.
The Hillsborough and Manatee classroom teacher associations are party to the suit, along with those in Lee, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Polk and Leon counties. Several teachers, including non-union members, also joined.
Diane Phillips, Brevard County's 2011 teacher of the year, is not a member of her local. But she distinguished between being against unions and being non-union.
"While I need my local union," she said, "I cannot afford to work union dues into my budget. … There are so many potential members just like me."
Meyer said the plaintiff group was broad to help ensure it has standing in the courts. In the past, the FEA has struggled to demonstrate the right to bring suit on other education issues it has fought.
"We believe if these people don't have standing, nobody has standing," Meyer said.
The case is brought against the members of the Public Employees Relations Commission.
Lawmakers have said they anticipated the suit, and did not expect it to be successful.
"It doesn't surprise me that they're filing a lawsuit and chances are over the next few years they're going to have many more reasons to file lawsuits if choice and education are problems for them," incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva said.