Published: Apr 01, 2011 4:15 PM EDT
Updated: Apr 01, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

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."

In fact, a legislative staff analysis for the Florida measures says they'll "result in a neutral to insignificant fiscal impact to public employers," but that unions "are likely to have more difficulty collecting dues (and) funds from employees for political purposes."

Florida is a constitutional right-to-work state, meaning all workers have the right to join or not join a union without fear of losing their jobs, according to the state's Public Employees Relations Commission.

There's a constitutional right to collective bargaining upheld by the state Supreme Court, but a prohibition against public employee strikes. And under state law, when both sides reach a bargaining impasse, the public employer wins.

Contrast that with Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a law removing most union rights for public employees. That law is on hold while it is being appealed, although it was published on a state website last week. Walker's representatives said that means it took effect last Saturday.

"It's been good for public employers to have an orderly labor-relations policy," said Ron Meyer, a veteran labor lawyer who represents the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union. "To disrupt that ... is to disrupt a very workable relationship."

State Sen. John Thrasher said he's not interested in eradicating public employee unions. But the St. Augustine Republican did sponsor a bill that, in part, requires unions to get members' permission before making political contributions.

He was encouraged by a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an Idaho law that banned public employee payroll deductions for political activity.

"Unions do a great job in many, many things they are involved in. That's not the debate," Thrasher said. Unions supported Thrasher's Democratic opponent in the last election.

"I believe personally that there's an inherent conflict in state and local government in respect to (political) neutrality ... and the authorization to deduct union dues, which are clearly used for political purposes," Thrasher said. Business interests such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce favor his and similar bills.

On the other hand, a representative for a Venice, Fla.-based firefighters and paramedics union told Thrasher's committee that insurance companies and others who benefit from paycheck deductions also use that money to influence politics.

"I have no idea what part of my premium (my insurer) spends on political action," said Rocco Salvatori. "Maybe I can get a refund from them."

Thrasher's bill, however, didn't sail smoothly out of committee. Two fellow Republicans voted against it, saying it was government intrusion into how people spend their money.

That kind of blowback serves as a good sign for Jeanette Wynn, the Florida president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents about 110,000 state employees.

"Attacking the working people that make this state strong will not balance the budget or create a single good job," Wynn said. "Any person that works should have the right to choose to join organizations and participate in the political process."

Fine, the Rutgers professor, added that public-sector unions' challenge is to counter the prevailing spin.

"They should tell people not to get angry over (public employees') pensions because they only have 401(k)s," she said. "Rather, people should be asking why they don't have the same benefits."

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