Unions unite in Tallahassee power struggle

Published March 8, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Today's expected Senate vote over giving parents the right to order turn-around programs at their struggling schools is less about parents and more about undercutting the role of Florida's powerful teachers unions, say labor organizers.

After numerous assaults on them last year, unions have banded together in a united front to persuade legislators — mainly the fragile majority in the Senate — to stop efforts to undercut the unions.

The vote count on the so-called parent trigger bill appeared too close for its sponsors to call late Wednesday. But the alliance in opposition to it was clear.

Unions, which previously had worked independently to pursue their agendas, have locked arms in an election-year strategy to reward their friends and penalize enemies on a handful of union-breaking proposals this year.

"Gov. (Rick) Scott and the Florida Legislature have done more to unify the Florida labor movement in the state of Florida than anybody else could have ever done,'' said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, which represents schoolteachers.

The alliance extends to police, fire, nurses and other public safety workers, said Robert Suarez of Miami, vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters.

"We jeopardize a lot of the security that we typically have among our supporters by building these coalitions,'' Suarez said. "But we're much stronger in representing the working class people if labor unions coordinate more."

Florida's public safety unions and Republicans had been Florida's strange bedfellows for more than a decade until last year as they frequently endorsed Republican candidates over Democrats.

In 1999, the first bill passed out of the Legislature and sent to then-Gov. Jeb Bush was a bill to expand pension benefits for police and firefighters.

Bush signed the measure, making good on a campaign promise he made after getting the endorsement of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Professional Firefighters Association. At his side was Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who was then House speaker.

It was a marriage of convenience as Republicans, seeking to appeal to a broad middle class swath of Florida's diverse electorate, aligned with the unions and the unions aligned with the Republicans who had won the governorship and claimed the majority in the House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.

In return, Bush and his Republican brethren won the ample support of the police and firefighters unions, who brought their considerable manpower and financial strength to the campaign trail.

But last year, with a $3.8 billion budget hole and a Republican governor who had been opposed by the unions, the marriage became strained.

Thrasher, who had since moved to the Senate, proposed a bill to prohibit state and local government employees from having union dues deducted from their pay checks. And the first bill to be signed by Scott was a bill to tie teacher pay to student performance and eliminate teacher tenure, a law bitterly opposed by the teacher unions.

Then, to close the budget gap, legislators took aim at the very benefits approved under Bush and passed a 3 percent reduction in the salaries of police, firefighters, teachers and other government workers in the state retirement pension system and capped cost-of-living adjustments.

Rather than return to the bargaining table, they ordered the $1.1 billion worth of changes by passing a law. On Tuesday, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford declared the law unconstitutional, a move the union representatives say emboldened their efforts to find legislators willing to work with them.

"What transpired especially last year was a real eye-opener for our members,'' said David Murrell of the Police Benevolent Association, who enjoyed good working relationships with both former governors Bush as well as Charlie Crist. "We tried to warn them that these things were going down the pike, and they say we were right. We'll be supporting more moderate candidates, both Republican and Democratic."

Their election-year focus is now on the state Senate, where Thrasher, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is engaged in a bitter leadership struggle against Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for the Senate presidency in 2016.

Two weeks ago, Thrasher attempted to coordinate a coup to unseat Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, as the Republican's designate for Senate president in 2014 and Latvala moved in to stop it, forming a alliance with Gardiner.

Latvala, who was instrumental in killing Thrasher's union dues bill last year, was rewarded by labor unions, who have given his two campaign committees $109,000 in campaign cash since last session. He also worked to defeat an effort to privatize South Florida prisons this year, a measure that was vigorously fought by the unions.

The vote on those issues won't be forgotten, Murrell said.

"Our money's on Jack Latvala,'' he said. "He's able to put together a coalition to run things efficiently and be open-minded."