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New Florida law has Tampa Bay labor unions scrambling for members

Unions say SB 256 was crafted to sabotage them, but state officials say it will help workers.
 
Clearwater employees and members of the Communications Workers of America Local 3179 appear outside before a City Council meeting on Aug. 17. The group called for better wages and workplace protections.
Clearwater employees and members of the Communications Workers of America Local 3179 appear outside before a City Council meeting on Aug. 17. The group called for better wages and workplace protections. [ CWA local 3179 ]
Published Aug. 28, 2023

Jason Wallace joined more than a dozen Clearwater employees earlier this month to let City Council members know their demands. Dressed in red and black shirts promoting their union, they called for higher wages, better treatment and safer working conditions.

“I’ve worked for the city for 20 years,” Wallace, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 3179, told the council. “We still don’t have decent wage. The cost of living has skyrocketed. The people who make this city bright and beautiful ... have to fight for crumbs.”

But at the same time that Clearwater union workers are fighting for a better contract, a state law that went into effect July 1 is threating the existence of collective voices that negotiate everything from wages to workplace protections throughout Florida.

Jason Wallace, a longtime city of Clearwater employee, faces City Council members on Aug. 17. Wallace called for improved wages for city employees, joining several fellow members of Communications Workers of America local 3179.
Jason Wallace, a longtime city of Clearwater employee, faces City Council members on Aug. 17. Wallace called for improved wages for city employees, joining several fellow members of Communications Workers of America local 3179. [ YouTube ]

The law, SB 256, requires public sector unions to enroll at least 60% of eligible employees or risk decertification by the state. Local governments may no longer deduct monthly dues from paychecks, forcing unions to reenroll existing members in a new payment system and recruit any new members needed to meet the 60% threshold.

Related: Tampa Bay teacher unions busy recruiting as new law threatens their role

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the law gives workers more control over their paychecks. But it exempts police, firefighters and correctional officers, leading many to criticize it as a politically-driven union buster for groups not aligned with the governor’s agenda.

“It’s being done to crush the unions,” said Stephen Simon, a city of Tampa wastewater treatment plant operator and president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1464. “Everybody who voted against the governor is under fire.”

On Thursday, Communications Workers of America Local 3179 held a phone banking event with pizza at the union hall where members called fellow Clearwater employees to get them signed up in the new dues payment software. Joining them in the effort were organizers from the union’s national office, who visited city work sites earlier this month.

Local union president Ron Rice estimated that they had hit about 30% enrollment in Clearwater as of Friday.

The low participation, Rice said, could be a symptom of how the law worked in Florida before the new regulations. All eligible employees received the contract benefits that the union negotiated with city administration, even if they were not dues-paying members. But now unions have to reeducate workers about the importance of enrollment.

“They believed that if they didn’t have a dispute with management where they would need the union’s representation, they were fine to just reap the benefits of the contract,” Rice said. “Now they are realizing all those benefits can go away if we don’t meet these requirements from this union-busting bill.”

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The deadline to meet the 60% threshold varies because it corresponds with each union’s annual renewal date, according to Tampa labor attorney John C. Getty.

Rice could not confirm the Clearwater union’s deadline.

If a union fails to meet the threshold, its certification can be revoked. But it can petition the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission for recertification within one month, Getty said. Then in an election, a majority of bargaining unit members would have to vote in favor of continued representation.

Afifa Khaliq, chief of staff for the Service Employees International Union Florida chapter, said the new regulations have been a logistical burden, underscoring the attack on public employees.

Longtime employees have depended on the paycheck deduction for dues, a system in place for decades to make participation easier. And workers who don’t have credit cards or debit cards to link to third-party software are especially vulnerable, Khaliq said.

Some unions across Florida have had contracts with employers in place for decades, so Khaliq said many workers may not understand the consequence of operating without union representation. Without collective bargaining, she said, employers can more easily ignore the safety concerns of workers or their demands for higher wages.

“What public sector unions do is they set standards,” Khaliq said. “When we fought for $15 minimum wage, it became a political narrative and elections were won on this issue. There are private corporations who do not want to see the impact of unions coming over to their corporations.”

State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said during committee hearings this year that the intent of the legislation is to encourage unions to be more engaged with its members.

Simon, the Tampa union president, countered: “But if the law is supposed to make unions better, why doesn’t it apply to police and fire?”

David Melton, a heavy equipment operator for Clearwater, said in his 15 years with the city, he had never seen national organizers visit his work site until now. He said he’s on the fence about reenrolling in the new dues-paying system because of frustrations over the lack of progress the union has made on a better contract up to now.

He said he wants to see more competitive wages and pay for new workers that reflects the experience they bring to the job. The low participation, like the roughly 30% enrollment, shows the need for more impactful efforts by local union leadership, Melton said.

“I want to stay with the union because I believe in it,” Melton said, “but I’d believe in it more if our representatives acted truly on our behalf.”