The national debate over public workers to be played out in Florida as Legislature convenes

By William Gjebre, 

Florida's Capitol buildings


Florida has a long history of battles for collective bargaining rights for public employees going back to the late sixties and early seventies, some gained after workers – particularly in South Florida — staged work stoppages and strikes. 

When the 2011 state legislative session opens Tuesday, a new chapter opens and Florida public employees face their greatest challenge in decades to preserve collective bargaining, job rights and benefits. 

Florida legislators appear ready to push education and pension changes intended to help solve immediate and long term funding problems. Public employees and their organizations say many of those measures are anti-union. 

The various House and Senate bills would establish performance pay for public school teachers for the first time, partially based on student performance. 

Proposed laws would require future government employees to contribute to their pensions and prohibit unions from collecting dues that could be used for political activities. Public employee unions would face decertification if they can’t show they have members making up half of the workplace or job unit. 

As some of the bills move along this legislative session, there will be no savior in the form of Gov. Charlie Crist who, in gearing up for his U.S. Senate campaign last year, vetoed such measures. 

Newly sworn-in Gov. Rick Scott advocates education and benefits changes and has vowed to approve those coming before him. Scott also predicts a $4.6 billion budget shortfall for next year, and wants to make that up by cutting $3.3 billion from education. 

While the current state measures are not quite as draconian as those being proposed in Wisconsin, they eat away at gains made by public employees. 

The turmoil has comes as other states attempt to rollback rights and benefits of public employees. Along with Wisconsin, labor battles have surfaced in Ohio, New York, Tennessee and Indiana.  

A national issue comes to Florida 

The chill threatening public employee rights elsewhere in the nation can be felt in South Florida, too. 

 “This is an attempt to silence unions,” said Pat Santeramo, president of the Broward Teachers Union (BTU). “They have been working this out in advance in backrooms. The various bills will be on express to pass.” 

Santeramo added, “(Legislators) think they know more about education than educators.” 

Both Santeramo and Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), both say linking pay to teacher or student performance requires local school districts to come up with standardized tests that will cost millions, but does not provide funding. 

“Who is going to pay for the tests?” Aronowitz said, “It’s unfunded.” 

She said the performance pay bill will force districts to use firms to develop these tests and “the money will be going to test-developers, privateers.” 

These measures, she added, will only help private schools. 

Both Aronowitz and Santeramo call measures “union-busting” that restrict union dues and place more requirements for union certification. 

The proposals, Aronowitz added “are being done under the guise of reform. It’s not democratic. They are making misery under the guise of teacher quality.” 

If they pass, many of the measures, Aronowitz predicted, will not stand legal and constitutional challenges. 

“They are trying to fill the deficit on the backs of teachers,” Santeramo said. “They are not adding to education, they are taking away.” 

Florida has been down this road before                      

The fight over labor rights involves more than teachers. Officials must also deal with police, fire and other government workers. But teachers have led the state’s changes in labor laws. 

In 1967, teachers were angered when then-Gov. Claude Kirk, the first Republican governor of Florida since reconstruction, vetoed a higher sales tax that would have provided more money for schools. 

In August that year, 30,000 teachers protested at a rally in Orlando’s Tangerine Bowl. Teachers went on strike in Pinellas and Broward counties the following month. 

A widespread strike followed in February 1968 when Gov. Kirk signed a measure to increase taxes that teachers said were too little. With Miami-Dade leading the way, the strike included more than 25,000 educators from two-thirds of the state’s school districts. 

In some areas of the state, employees were out for as long as three months. Gov. Kirk and the legislature, however, refused to increase funding. To resolve the labor conflicts, local school districts negotiated separate agreements with teachers. 

In 1968, the Florida Supreme ruled that the state’s newly written Constitution gave public employees the right to collective bargaining. Still the legislature was slow to move. 

Eventually the state’s Public Employees Relations Act (PERA) was passed and implemented in 1974 that, among other measures, established collective bargaining rights in exchange for outlawing strikes and work stoppages. 

Legislators say change is necessary 

One legislator, Sen. Jeremy Ring, District 32, D-Margate, disagreed with South Florida union leaders as to the intent of bills (HB 1128 and HB 1130) he introduced to require new employees to contribute 2 percent of their salaries for retirement plans. 

“The state faces a $4 billion shortfall and something has to be done to relieve the burden on present and future taxpayers,” Ring said. “We are concerned about the future and unfunded liabilities. Some cities are straining under pension obligations requiring 50 to 70 percent of their budgets.” 

“The unions,” Ring said, “never feel they’re necessary (the proposed changes). But they got to recognize the need for reform. I think they will recognize these (his proposals) are the least objectionable.” 

Ring said his proposals are “absolutely not” in the arena of union busting. 

 “This is reform; there is nothing political about our bills.” 

He said, however, there are many other proposals being offered that may be more onerous to state employees. 

Ring said Gov. Scott has called for the end of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, an employee-favored retirement savings program; his bill does not. Scott also wants employees to contribute 5 percent of their wages for pensions, not 2 percent as proposed by Ring.  Scott also calls for an end to cost-of-living increases for retirees; Ring’s bill does not. 

A laundry list of limits to labor rights 

Proposed new limits on public labor in Florida are coming from many directions. 

Rep.Erik Fresen, R-Miami, sponsor of HB 7019, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of SB 736, links performance to teacher salaries. 

The bills also allow for removal of a teacher without explanation or just cause and end continuing contracts; stipulate that only highly effective and effective teachers would receive pay increases, and permit removal of a teacher based on performance rather than seniority and for unsatisfactory performance. 

Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of SB 830, and Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Heathrow, sponsor of HB 1021, prohibits unions from collecting union dues and dues for political activities unless an employee specifies in an authorization card. 

Rep.Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, sponsor of House Bill 1023, and Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, sponsor of HB 1025, affects union recertification. The bills require a union to recertify itself with the state by July 1, 2011.  Certification will be revoked if membership is less than 50 percent of the potential bargaining unit. 

Other than Ring, legislators could not be reached regarding bills attached to their names. Steven Richardson, an aide to Wise, said the senator has such busy schedule that he would not have time to comment to the BrowardBulldog

Either way, unions are bracing for a fight. 

Miami-Dade’s Aronowitz said, “I think it’s going to be ugly and we expected that.”

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