TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — While political assaults on public employee unions in Wisconsin and other states have been grabbing the headlines, the workers' counterparts in Florida also have been under attack from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Lawmakers are preparing to gut union strength, curbing their ability to collect dues through automatic paycheck deductions, forcing them to get written permission from each member before making political contributions and calling for unions that fall below a certain level of membership to be stripped of collective bargaining rights.
One of the bills passed the House last week and is awaiting Senate approval.
What's different in Florida, however, is a state constitutional provision that protects public employees' right to collectively bargain. The term describes negotiations between unions and employers to agree on pay, benefits and other work conditions. The constitutional protection means Florida lawmakers face limits on what they can do to roll back union power.
The Florida efforts are part of a national trend, bolstered by Republican victories last year, to turn back union might.
As Mabel Ryan, a Florida tea party activist, recently said in Tallahassee, "Last November was a tremendous boost for all of us. We won, and they lost" — she pointed at a pro-union demonstration — "and we're going to win again."
That sentiment irritates veteran state employees like Kathleen Reese, who spent 33 years as a child welfare and elder services worker.
"State workers are very hard working and dedicated," said Reese, who recently retired. "We're not sitting around twiddling our thumbs."
This year's bills, which some labor leaders refer to as "Union Busting 101," are in some ways the legacy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a conservative who fought teachers' unions as a part of his education reform efforts.
In his second inaugural speech, Bush also talked about wanting to empty state office buildings of all their workers, turning them into "silent monuments." Two decades before that, Republican Gov. Bob Martinez vaguely alluded to state workers as "lard bricks" in presenting a budget that contained no raises for them.
In one sense, the backlash against public employee unions can be seen as a chickens-coming-home-to-roost moment. Municipalities for years have felt hamstrung by union rules governing layoffs, overtime and retirement benefits.
"Unions have won a considerable amount of fat for their members, mostly in benefits," said James Sherk, the conservative Heritage Foundation's labor policy analyst. That drives up costs for public employers and, ultimately, taxpayers, he said.
Yet opinion polls still show a majority supports public employees being able to bargain collectively and be paid competitively with their private-sector companions.
Florida also has police, firefighter and teacher unions. A bill already approved by Florida's Legislature ends teacher tenure and ties pay to student performance, rather than seniority.
Republican state legislators across the country are taking advantage of the conservative tide to push an agenda they've been waiting for, said one national labor-relations expert.
"There's been a position, going back to Ronald Reagan, that public sector unions are a big problem," said Janice Fine, a labor-studies professor at Rutgers University. In 1981, President Reagan fired more than 11,000 unionized air traffic controllers after they illegally went on strike.
"So you wait and go after them in a moment when they're weak," Fine added. With the recession, and accompanying state budget and pension crises, she said, "this is that moment."
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