From Florida to Alaska, workers are facing legal efforts to weaken their power by targeting union certification and dues.
Ford teachers are chief target of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis attack on public employees,ShareAlike 2.0 Generic via Wikimedia Commons
Public sector unions in the US have been facing significant challenges from anti-union groups and Republicans at the federal and state levels in recent years, but have also mounted significant organizing campaigns to stave off membership and funding losses.
Some 33% of workers in the public sector were union members in 2022, over five times the union density of the private sector in America. At more than 7 million workers, public sector unions represent nearly half of the 14.3 million union members in the US.
Florida’s rightwing governor, Ron DeSantis, has been one politician leading the charge against public sector unions. He signed a bill, SB 256, into law, that imposes new restrictions on public sector unions, in May.
Florida was already a “right-to-work” state where workers can opt out of union membership and pay union dues while still receiving representation under a collective bargaining agreement. Only 4.5% of workers in Florida were union members in 2022, one of the lowest union densities in the US.
Now the new legislation sets a new threshold for unions to avoid having to recertify through a new union election if dues-paying members fall below 60%. The bill also requires unions to undergo annual audits, prohibits automatic dues deductions from employee paychecks, and mandates universal language on union authorization cards that reaffirms Florida’s right to work status.
Unions have criticized the legislation as an anti-union bill aimed at dismantling public sector unions and threatening union contracts and the benefits they provide to workers.
The bill was strongly backed by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative thinktank, which sent out mailers to public employees in Florida about the law.
“When you look at this legislation that the Freedom Foundation wrote here in Florida, it’s clear their main target is the teachers’ unions in Florida. They want to make it so that teachers’ unions are decertified, so that teachers have no voice in the workplace and no contract in which they operate under,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, which represents educators and has over 150,000 union members in Florida.
Unions have fought back in the state.
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The Florida Educators Association attempted to obtain an emergency injunction to stop the effect of SB256 because it impugns union contracts already in existence, but lost that request, though the union still has a challenge to the legislation proceeding in federal court and is currently working on a state challenge. Spar also said the union was working on a challenge against a government-mandated union membership form that will not count dues-paying members unless they sign and submit the form.
“That’s what’s happening in Florida. The state of Florida is literally saying you’ve joined your union, you’re paying dues to your union, but we don’t count you as a union member. It makes no sense,” added Spar.
The recent legislation in Florida is part of broader anti-union efforts aimed at weakening public sector unions across the nation, but also of union action to fight back.
Many conservative stronghold states have passed right-to-work laws, with the majority of the 27 states with these laws passing legislation in the 1940s and 50s. The state laws allow workers to “free-ride”, working under a collectively bargained agreement by a union without paying dues for union membership.
In March 2023, Michigan became the first state to repeal a right-to-work law since Indiana in 1965 before Republicans restored it there in 2012.
The “right to work” movement was started and led by Vance Muse in the 1940s, a conservative activist, lobbyist and white supremacist from Texas who coined the phrase “right to work” and championed it in southern states with arguments to preserve Jim Crow-era laws.
In lock step with “right to work” efforts, Conservative and anti-union groups are currently pushing for the US supreme court to take on a case to expand the scope of the 2018 Janus v AFSCME decision that still permitted public sector unions to collect fees from non-members covered by collective bargaining agreements.
That 2018 Scotus decision overruled a 1977 decision that permitted labor unions representing public employees to collect some dues from workers who opted not to be union members, but still receive protection and benefits under a collective bargaining agreement, referred to as “free-riders”.
In August, a petition was filed to the supreme court in support of Alaska’s attorney general to try to claim under the Janus ruling that labor unions should have to acquire consent from employees every year for due deductions. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Freedom Foundation are among the anti-union groups that have written amicus briefs in support of the petition.
The effort in Alaska stems from the Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, attempting to issue an executive order in 2018 that would require annual opt-ins for union membership as part of the interpretation of the Janus ruling by the state’s attorney general, Kevin Clarkson.
“What we see in Alaska, what we see in other conservative states where Republicans have control, the state legislature and governor’s office or both, is a proliferation of attempts to roll back the ability of the unions to collect dues and to sap their financial resources,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.
Wong added: “These are all orchestrated attempts to strip union strength at a time when overall union support is on the rise and union activism is on the rise, but also to undercut the impact of unions as we enter this critical 2024 political cycle.”
The Alaska supreme court ruled against Governor Dunleavy’s administration in June, ordering the state to pay $450,000 to the Alaska State Employees Association in damages, legal fees and interest, affirming lower court rulings.
In Kansas, anti-union groups have supported legislation opposed by unions to mandate public sector workers be required to annually receive notices that they can opt out of union membership and not pay dues.
In Wisconsin, labor unions are pushing to overturn Act 10, legislation signed by the Republican governor, Scott Walker, in 2011 that eliminated bargaining rights for most public employees, after liberals recently assumed a majority in the Wisconsin supreme court for the first time in 15 years.
In Iowa, Republicans took control of the state senate from Democrats in 2017 and with it passed a bill that took collective bargaining rights away from public employees, reducing the number of issues that unions could bargain over, with exemptions for police officers.
The legislation also made union dues collection more difficult and required public employee unions to recertify with new union elections before every contract expiration. In those elections, any worker who doesn’t vote is counted as a vote against the union. The bill was strongly lobbied for by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group heavily funded and supported by the billionaire Koch brothers.
In a narrow 4-3 ruling in 2019, the Iowa supreme court upheld the law in a judgment on a case challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.
“It was not something that there was any input that anyone wanted from our side of things. They pretty much had a bill that was already prewritten,” said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.