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

Without enough paying members, Florida could strip their ability to negotiate contracts.
Oak Grove Elementary music teacher Erik Hagen speaks during a news conference on Monday, May 8, 2023, at the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association headquarters in Tampa.
Oak Grove Elementary music teacher Erik Hagen speaks during a news conference on Monday, May 8, 2023, at the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association headquarters in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 20

Every afternoon for the past two weeks, the Pinellas County school district’s two primary employee unions have posted a YouTube video announcing $100 gift card winners.

The awards are an incentive to sign up for a new payment system the unions launched in anticipation of Gov. Ron DeSantis signing a measure that forbids school districts from collecting dues for the organizations.

Sign-ups “are rolling in,” Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said in the groups’ May 17 video. “Keep it going, guys. Keep it going.”

There’s an urgency about the effort, Velardi said, as school employee unions in Pinellas and across Florida aim to reach members and potential members before they leave for summer break. They want to get as many people participating as possible before everyone becomes less reachable.

If they don’t get at least 60% of eligible workers to join and pay in time, the unions face decertification, which could leave thousands of employees without a contract or an agent authorized to negotiate a new one. Union leaders contend these new rules are unconstitutional, and they’ve sued to stop the law from taking hold.

At the same time, though, they’re leaving nothing to chance.

“We are going into schools talking to our members all over the state,” Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said. “We are preparing for all aspects of this law while we fight it out in court.”

Andrew Spar
Andrew Spar [ Courtesy of the Florida Education Association ]

The unions have lost many legal battles with the state. And they don’t want to abandon their role of collectively bargaining and defending workers’ contractual rights.

“I do want to be very clear,” said Jeff Larsen, operations director for United School Employees of Pasco. “We will comply with the law, and we absolutely will continue to advocate for our members. We are not going anywhere.”

More than anything, that means growing membership beyond the 50% required five years ago. Unions met that challenge, but many have not approached the 60% benchmark. It takes constant communication, Larsen said, noting that employee rosters don’t stay the same for long.

“The turnover rate in education is such that you have to recruit lots and lots of new members, because they don’t necessarily stay in the system,” he said. “It’s a tough job.”

Part of the effort to boost membership means demonstrating the union’s relevance, which can be difficult in the face of harsh criticism from the governor and leading Republican lawmakers. The teachers unions, which traditionally have backed Democratic candidates, long have been a target of GOP officials.

Republican lawmakers dismissed criticisms of the new law, SB 256, saying it would force unions to become more responsive to workers, and make their operations more transparent. They rejected any suggestion that the measure might hinder teachers’ ability to collectively bargain.

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In Pinellas, the unions have courted members — and public support — with events such as a showing of “Ruby Bridges,” the Disney movie about a civil rights figure, which recently faced a challenge at one school. The evening included a meal and panel discussion on the importance of Black history.

“We’re trying to change the opinion people have about unions,” Velardi said.

Toward that end, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association invited reporters to a news conference outside the union headquarters the day before DeSantis signed the law.

One by one, the union leaders celebrated their recent victory in getting the district to agree to two yearly pay raises, called steps, that were outlined in a long-published pay scale. The agreement followed months of stalled negotiations and an impasse case before a special hearing officer.

“Without our union, it would have been impossible to have even gotten those steps from our district,” said Letecia Nathan, a kindergarten teacher at Tampa Heights Elementary School.

When asked about membership rates, union president Rob Kriete said 63% of Hillsborough teachers belong.

“We’re confident that we’re going to do the work that needs to be done to make sure that we not only maintain our membership, but build our membership,” Kriete said. “Our members recognize that what we do goes beyond the contract. It is advocating for their careers and advocating for the students of the district.”

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association President Nancy Velardi speaks during a rally of educators at St. Petersburg City Hall on Saturday, April 1, 2023.
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association President Nancy Velardi speaks during a rally of educators at St. Petersburg City Hall on Saturday, April 1, 2023. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Velardi said the Pinellas teachers union is hovering around 55% membership. However, some are hesitating to join the new electronic dues paying program because of concerns related to data security, she said.

The union is still working out ways to collect cash and check payments for the $690 annual fee.

Without joining the payment plan, membership could lapse and participation rates would decrease. Velardi said the union is using repeated mailings, contests, social media posts and other methods to reach out. A key message involves reminding workers exactly what the union does.

“I don’t think they understand exactly what they have to lose,” she said, noting that many of the items in the contract, such as the district covering 80% of health insurance costs, only got there after protracted negotiations. “With no one at the table, they are not just going to hand you stuff.”

Larsen agreed, saying the protections in Pasco’s 82-page contract could disappear if the bargaining unit no longer exists. It’s uncertain whether existing contracts could be enforced if one of the parties is not viable, Spar said.

That’s part of the union’s court challenge.

Several union leaders said they anticipated many educators would leave if they do not have an agreement.

“We don’t want to be in a place where there is no contract for our employees,” Larsen said.

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this story.

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