Lee Bryant spent a rainy Tuesday afternoon inside his car, waiting in a credit union parking lot for his Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association representatives to show up with petitions.
“The glamorous life,” Bryant joked afterward.
Also serious business, the teachers’ union president said. That’s because the organization is taking every available avenue to combat Florida’s new law making it harder than ever for many public sector collective bargaining agents to keep operating.
This past spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that forbids school districts from using payroll deductions to help unions collect their membership dues. The same measure required unions to prove they represent at least 60% of eligible participants, up from the 50% mandate implemented five years ago.
If they don’t meet the mark, the contracts they negotiated for teachers could be nullified, leaving it up to school districts to set terms of employment unilaterally.
The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which represents about 7,000 teachers, was well on its way to meeting the rules, Bryant said. Then the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which monitors labor and employment issues, threw a new curveball.
At a meeting in October, the commission advanced a rule saying unions would have to collect and present signed membership authorization forms for all members, regardless of when they joined, to prove they achieve the 60% mark.
Months earlier, state and local union leaders say, they heard the commission tell unions they were not responsible for holding those papers — so they didn’t collect them. The commission has disputed that interpretation.
Commission officials did not return calls seeking comment.
For the Pinellas teachers association, the change meant an immediate shift in its strategy to stay in business. Its recertification date arrives Feb. 9, with a freeze on its membership taking hold 30 days earlier. With the Thanksgiving break and winter vacation fast approaching, that left little time to get papers they didn’t have.
Instead, they pivoted to a petition drive in which 30% of eligible members can request a vote to certify the union. If enough signatures come in, the Public Employees Relations Commission would conduct an election in which a simple majority would decide if the Pinellas union stays or goes.
“We’re focusing on what we can do,” said Lindsey Blankenbaker, the association’s executive director.
If it sounds too easy — 30% instead of 60% of signatures needed, followed by a simple majority vote — don’t be fooled, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
In a certification vote, any other group can put itself forward as an alternative to the union by submitting signatures from 10% of eligible members. And the Freedom Foundation, a national organization dedicated to fighting the “radical social agendas” of ”left-wing government union bosses,” is supporting such endeavors in Florida.
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“They want to be able to challenge unions with fake unions. They’re doing it in Miami-Dade right now,” Spar said. “There is no doubt in our minds this is an attempt by an extreme element of billionaires who are funding efforts to get rid of unions.”
Freedom Foundation donors include groups associated with the Koch brothers, the billionaire family known for its involvement in libertarian and conservative causes. The foundation also is active with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national network of mostly Republican state lawmakers who share model legislation on issues of interest.
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association leaders are warily watching such events to the south as they head toward recertification, hoping to avert a similar situation. And union leaders in neighboring Hillsborough and Pasco counties, which have even later recertification dates, are keeping an eye on how the effort goes in Pinellas.
“It’s fortunate for us, and unfortunate for them, that we’re going to learn from their efforts,” said Rob Kriete, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president.
Kriete said his organization is building membership toward the 60% level, including the membership forms, and waiting to see if a petition drive will be needed.
Bryant said he has been encouraged by the support he’s seen so far, with some schools getting 90% or better turnout on the signature petition. Even nonunion teachers see the value in having a collective bargaining agent in place securing contract terms that cover issues such as planning time and insurance benefits, he said.
“I’m afraid what it would mean for the employees if we were to go,” Blankenbaker said.
Bryant, a union member for nearly three decades who is on leave from his teaching job at St. Petersburg High, said he’s seen union-busting efforts for years. With Republicans holding a supermajority in Florida’s House and Senate, he said, more is likely to come. Yet he remained undeterred.
“Even though unions are more popular, they’re trying to end it in Florida,” he said. “But we’re not going to let them.”
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