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Teachers’ union leader: Jamie Grant bill would ‘cripple’ unions

Grant argues his bill protects teachers and union members.

The Hillsborough County Classroom Teacher’s Association is speaking out against a measure in the Florida House its believes is meant to cripple public labor unions.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins is the executive director for the Hillsborough teacher’s union. She described the latest “union busting” legislation as a clear indication certain lawmakers are targeting teacher’s unions.

“This state has shown very clearly over time that it is very intent on privatizing the public school system,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “One of the few voices that fights against it is the [Florida Education Association,] which I believe is the largest union in the state of Florida. If you cripple the FEA it allows us to have less voice and less power in other means and I think it’s very clear that they would like to see that happen.”

At issue is a bill (HB 1) sponsored by Rep. Jamie Grant that would require public unions including teacher, police and fire unions, to collect signed authorization forms from employees indicating their desire to join the union and pay the required dues.

The bill would also require unions to cancel membership and stop collecting dues from employees who turn in written requests to sever their membership.

One of the biggest points of contention among union leaders and supporters is a third provision that would require unions to collect reauthorization forms from members every year.

The requirements represent what could be an administrative challenge some unions might not be able to shoulder.

“If I had to, during the key time in the summer when we are bargaining contracts, if I at that point had to have all of my staff knocking on people’s doors trying to get reauthorization, it would limit the kinds of actual good things we can do for our members,” Baxter-Jenkins said.

Grant argued during his bill’s first of two committee hearings Thursday that the bill was simply a measure aimed at protecting employees. He argued about instances where some unions hand in a spreadsheet of names of employees who wish to join a union and employers add those employees as members and begin collecting the required dues without having adequate verification that the employee did in fact want to join.

Democrats during the Thursday hearing pointed to, and Baxter-Jenkins echoed, provisions in existing Florida law and the state constitution that already require an employees written authorization to join a union and have dues deducted from their paychecks.

“In essence, all of the things he’s claiming that the bill requires, are already required in state law,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “For every member of our union we have a signed authorization card. That’s shared with the district. It is a right to work state so members can withdraw at any time and deductions are stopped within 30 days as required by law.”

Grant’s bill passed its first committee hearing and faces one more before heading to the House floor for a full vote — that’s one committee stop fewer than most bills face.

The bill presents another problem for union leaders like Baxter-Jenkins. It would also block unions from asking members who choose not to remain in the union why they want to leave.

Grant offered one example. He said a withdrawal form for Orange County teachers asks for their political party affiliation. Grant called the question “offensive.” His bill would make sure unions couldn’t ask probing questions that might make employees feel threatened when attempting to leave a union.

But during the Thursday committee hearing, Rep. Anna Eskamani said those questions could be important demographic-based inquiries aimed at providing better service. She and Baxter-Jenkins also pointed out that political party affiliation is already public record.

“We do not ask for that,” Baxter-Jenkins said of the union she runs. “We do, however, try to ask people what issues there may be — did we not serve you properly? We want to always make sure we are serving people and we have lots of different people.

When considering all of the administrative burden the bill would create, Baxter-Jenkins worries some unions may not be able to maintain the required level of participation to provide services for members.

Under a new law passed last year, unions must have 50% participation in order to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of its members, which often benefits nonmembers, too. That bargaining can include pay raises and additional benefits like paid time off, parental leave or classroom supply allowances.

Meeting the required threshold is threatened under the bill because it might make it harder for unions to recruit or retain members. But even more troubling for union leaders is the bill’s potential effect of forcing unions to reallocate resources to new administrative tasks while reducing efforts to provide services and support for members, which could lead to people who don’t feel served dropping their memberships.

Baxter-Jenkins said it’s merely an “unnecessary” attempt to “cripple” public unions.

A similar bill in the Senate (SB 804) has not been heard in committee and is not currently on any committee calendars.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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