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A new law in Florida puts the fate of the state's public-sector unions at risk


Florida is one of the only states where the right to join a labor union is enshrined in the state constitution, but a new law is putting the fate of public sector unions at risk. Here's Danny Rivero from member station WLRN in Miami.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: On a recent morning, three tables are set up inside the government center in downtown Miami. Staffers and members from a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are trying to convince workers to start paying their union dues.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have information that I can take with me?

RIVERO: It's part of a rush of activity as Florida's new union law, SB 256, went into effect on July 1.

SE'ADOREIA BROWN: And now it's kind of like do or die because, you know, this law is ultimately an attack on working-class people.

RIVERO: Se'Adoreia Brown is the president of Local 199, which represents about 7,500 Miami-Dade County employees - people like bus drivers, staff at the medical examiner's office and court workers. As of July 1, local governments can no longer withdraw union dues directly from paychecks. So now workers have to go through an extra step - paying monthly dues with their credit cards or checks. Even longtime members have to switch over. And at the same time, at least 60% of people in the bargaining unit have to start paying dues by October. Otherwise, the union could be decertified, throwing labor contracts and the union's very existence into question.

BROWN: Are we at 60%? No. However, I can say that there has been a push, and we've signed up 700 new members since we started this whole campaign and right when folks realize that, hey, this is real.

RIVERO: They're struggling to get their numbers up in a right-to-work state where paying union dues is optional.

BROWN: The days of piggybacking is long gone because if there's no union contract, there's nothing for any of us to piggyback off of.

RIVERO: For years, unions here have negotiated paid holidays, birthday holidays, merit increases, longevity bonuses, sick leave and more. That could all be gone, says Monica Jemison, who works for the county Department of Finance.

MONICA JEMISON: You would lose all the benefits that you originally have - down to basic pay.

RIVERO: She convinced one of her coworkers to finally start paying union dues. The new threshold of 60% applies to all public employee unions except for police, firefighters and corrections officers. Some of the biggest unions in the state are teachers unions. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis defended the law, even if it hurts them. He says it would actually help teachers.


RON DESANTIS: That is going to lead to more take-home pay for teachers because they're not going to have as many deductions in their paycheck.

RIVERO: The teachers union for the most populous county in the state, Miami-Dade, was barely above 50% last year. So now the union's fighting for its life.

KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: They have created so many caveats in this law, purposefully trying to find a way to eradicate and demolish the union.

RIVERO: Karla Hernandez-Mats is the president of United Teachers of Dade, representing more than 27,000 teachers and school staffers. Last year, she ran for lieutenant governor as the running mate of Democrat Charlie Crist.

HERNANDEZ-MATS: We're working nonstop all summer. You know, we're out visiting schools during summer school. We're making phone calls. We're phone banking. We're doing everything that we have to do.

RIVERO: There are already two lawsuits moving through the courts. Both take issue with the fact that police and firefighter unions are exempt from the new provisions.

For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWMO FRIENDS' "PLANTS FOR FREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danny Rivero