February 23, 2024

The following article was originally posted December 11, 2023, on MLToday.

Editorial Note: The Democrats could never position themselves as allies of labor, only as a party of the interests of the monopolies. This is especially seen with the relationship of the Democrats to teachers’ unions. The Democratic Party has been crucial in expanding policies undermining education workers and placing education into the hands of private interests: merit pay, charter school expansions, and teacher assessment programs. They have been instrumental in passing ‘Race to the Top’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’, the explosion of charter schools in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and New Orleans, and recruiting the services of anti-union figures such as those of the Obama Administration, Arne Duncan and John King.

The state of Florida, ruled by fanatic anti-labor bigot Governor Ron DeSantis (R), implemented a new public sector labor law earlier this year. Passed by the Republican-dominated legislature, and signed by DeSantis, the new and destructive restrictions and attacks on state and local worker unions have happened with little national publicity. To many in the national labor movement, this attack “flew under the radar.”

The law, dubbed “SB 256”, requires a 60% union membership threshold for the union to avoid automatic, wholesale decertification. A completely new re-enrollment of union members is forced on all public unions, along with new and costly financial audit rules and more mandatory paperwork for local union officers and individual members to complete. All of this just in order to keep their union and collective bargaining agreements alive, and in effect. Those not completing the new and outrageous requirements of the law are essentially put out of business, with total workplace control reverting to the employer and its management. All of this came into effect on July 1, 2023.

War Declared on Florida Public Workers

The purpose of this attack is simple; to abolish immediately, or to eventually regulate away public sector unions, especially the teachers’ unions. This anti-labor mania comes in the wake of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and the conservative movement’s hysterical book-burning spree. DeSantis and his minions have been in an all-out Fox News-led media campaign against the teachers’ unions for many years now. The culture war drama plays out every day and night under Republican rule in the Sunshine State, with broad impact. All state and local unions found themselves on the front line as a result. Already hampered by a weak collective bargaining law and saddled with onerous and unfair “right-to-work” conditions, the already beleaguered public sector unions in Florida now face extinction under the current onslaught.

On-The-Ground Perspective

The author of this article is a member of one of the affected public-sector unions in Florida. While there’s some significant good work being done to fight back and preserve the rights of public sector workers in the state, the current attacks demand a “taking of stock” so far as the failed strategy of both national and state-level labor unions and leaders.

As of yet, there is no campaign to organize any sort of credible coordinated response by the statewide labor movement. Instead, individual unions are left to create their own patchwork quilt of campaigns, each grappling with this new law and crisis differently. The national leadership of the AFL-CIO has yet to do a thing so far as I can tell. Those unions independent of the AFL-CIO that have local and state members in Florida are likewise nowhere to be found in any coordinated way. For a long time, I thought that whatever was going on was just unknown to me. I am now forced to draw the conclusion that far too little is going on whatsoever.

Misleadership From the Start

Since Florida public sector collective bargaining was created in 1978, the union membership in Florida at the state and local level has been fractured as dozens of unions all scrambled to grab as many new public members as possible. Labor today is left with a hodge-podge of unions and members scattered across the giant state of nearly 22 million people, with each union left to do its best in isolation from the others. In the same county, as many as 15 or even 20 different unions may represent workers in cities, counties, and in other many public agencies. In the next county over, different unions entirely may organize similar workers.

The AFL-CIO promoted this organizing free-for-all when the law allowing for union organization was passed more than 45 years ago. For several years regular meetings of AFL-CIO affiliates were held in Orlando to stimulate the unions to take organizing action, but with almost no rules or guidelines. In just a few years, tens of thousands employed in the state and local workforce were unionized but broken up among various unions. In addition to public sector unions, organizers from the private sector — building trades, maritime trades, industrial unions, and others — searched the state energetically for new public sector members. There was significant success in bringing the benefits of a union to the workforce, but with no coordination, no mechanism to communicate or set standards, and, of course, there was no machinery to defend the legal and labor protections when the DeSantis bomb was hurled. The union organizing land-rush once unleashed was, in the end, unable to defend itself.

Unions Fight Back – As Best They Can

A video you can see here from the Florida AFL-CIO shows some of the fits and starts in lobbying efforts in the state capital of Tallahassee to stop the SB 256 legislation. The labor movement showed some limited signs of life, with the teacher’s unions showing the greatest activity. But the response was uneven at best and was non-existent in many – probably most – public workplaces. To date, no statewide labor action has been suggested by anyone, again leaving the isolated pockets of unionism to fight it out alone. Public sector slowdowns and strikes are banned under the law, further limiting the union response and leaving public employers feeling immune to that sort of backlash.

Elected Democrats have largely stood by as the crisis has unfolded. Some did speak out against the attack, but their appetite to challenge the law and defy DeSantis directly is apparently absent, or at least unstated. With elected Democrats still controlling large numbers of local public jurisdictions in the state, it would be possible for them to work in concert with organized labor to defy this dangerous and unjust law. But such a course of action seems unlikely with this set of political “leaders.” As of this writing, there has yet to be an elected Democrat in the state to announce their intention to ignore this destructive law.

Organized labor in Florida regularly pours itself into the election and re-election campaigns of countless Democrats. Will elected leaders in a position to do so defy the law? Will they reciprocate and support labor? With Florida being the crocodile pit of reactionary politics that it is, Republican state legislators tried relentlessly to pass a law like SB 256 for nearly 20 years. The passage and implementation of the current law should have been no surprise to anyone. But where was labor’s coordinated response? Where were preparations made by organized labor for this day of reckoning?

The Anti-Union Die Is Cast

Why the labor movement failed to meet the moment can be referenced by pointing out the fact the police and firefighter unions, primarily the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), were all able to obtain a “carve out” exemption in the SB 256 legislation. The new law does not affect cops or firefighters, whom Republicans singled out and decided to preserve their union bargaining rights. Thus, labor was split wide open by the time-tested boss tactic of divide and conquer, with disastrous results.

And once again, during the critical political battles over the past years regarding this legislation, a largely administrative and “insider” course of action was pursued by the unions. There was some publicity union-by-union about the danger of the new law, but very limited mobilization and no appeals to the labor movement outside of Florida. Disaster has been the result.

In the months since its passage, passage, the labor movement’s response to SB 256 has been timid and disorganized. The organizational turmoil, driven by the ongoing and everchanging implementation of the law by individual employers and the Florida state labor agency — the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) — leaves huge numbers of union leaders and members confused and dazed at the prospect of completely losing their union and legally binding labor contracts. There is no central location or website for any local leader or rank-and-file member to learn about and better understand precisely what the law exactly does and what it means, save for a brief web page blurb from the Florida AFL-CIO and from the large public sector union AFSCME. Little else seems to be available. An ordinary worker in Florida’s public sector seems to be left to search for explanations online, maybe by relying on her own union if that union is mounting a resistance or perhaps by speaking to a local union steward or officer. To the best of this participant’s knowledge, little or no literature or any other mass media has been produced to educate members as to how to fight the calamity.

Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Then Janus – Now Florida

With recent attacks on public worker union rights like those in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, then the Janus US Supreme Court case (June 2018) that restricted a public sector union’s ability to collect dues, and with the Florida disaster unfolding now, there can be no doubt that the Republican agenda is to exterminate organized labor. In Florida, even with the limited ability to organize in the state and local sector, only 5.2 % of Florida’s workforce were union members in 2022 The labor movement literally hangs on by its fingernails in one of the largest and fastest growing states.

This is an alarming situation. As the DeSantis assault proceeds, hard-won union outposts are being lost by the score. Hundreds of bargaining units in dozens of unions and tens of thousands of union members are at risk should they fail to reach the demanded 60% membership threshold – only one of the possible triggers of the Republican organizational death penalty. With no central attempt apparently being mounted by the labor movement, the carnage will be immense. Questions are in order; How did this happen, where was labor’s response, what is the strategy to stop the destruction, and how will we eventually reverse course?

New Union Spirit Required

In American Trade Unionism, the collected writings of labor’s legendary organizer William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com), he spares no criticism for the inaction and paralysis of the business union leaders of his day. In chapter 12, “Business Unionism,” Foster calls out the failed union leaders who sat idly by while organized labor was wrecked and entire unions destroyed in the 1920s:
“The leaders do nothing to stir the militant spirit and class enthusiasm of the workers. They fail to lead the unions in defense of the workers’ interests; they resist every effort to develop the unions into organizations capable of coping with modern capitalism… The widespread indifference of the workers towards the union is an inevitable result of the prevailing intense class collaboration policies of the union officialdom.”

A new spirit of trade unionism in Florida is required. Better leadership will bring better followership, and better results than this sorry debacle. The old methods are capable only of rout and defeat, as we have seen in living color here in the systematic destruction of the labor movement in the Florida public sector.

Izzy Kantor is a union member and activist in the Florida public sector labor movement.