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FIU professors strengthen their labor union after a 'shock to the system' from a state purge

While tens of thousands of public sector workers have lost their unions since a 2023 law went into effect, the United Faculty of Florida-FIU union is poised to stay alive and stronger than before.

Close to 100 employees at Florida International University who are not professors have had their union fully decertified by the state of Florida, one year after a sweeping anti-union state bill became law.

But even as tens of thousands of public sector workers across Florida have lost their unions — and as tens of thousands more are fighting to keep their unions alive — the union that represents university professors and faculty at FIU is poised to stay alive and stronger than before.

The FIU workers who have lost their collective bargaining rights include engineers, archivists, grant writers, admissions officers, interpreters for the deaf, museum workers and more, according to the original state filing for that union.

They are included among the tens of thousands of public sector employees who have lost their labor unions ever since key provisions of SB 256 went into effect, as WLRN has reported.

Non-professor staff at nearly all public universities in Florida have lost their unions, WLRN has found.

Last year’s SB 256 made it so that to stay active, most public sector unions have to have 60% of members paying dues — while at the same time it banned public employers from deducting union dues from paychecks.

Law enforcement, firefighter and correctional officer unions are exempt from the new law.

READ MORE: Tens of thousands of workers in Florida have just lost their labor unions. More is coming

But at FIU, the United Faculty of Florida union has seen a major increase in membership — with its president telling WLRN it will allow them to "get off the back foot" and "take on even more."

“When coupled with the attacks on higher education that were happening at the same time, it definitely woke faculty up to the principles of shared governance and unionization and labor,” said Eric Scarffe, the UFF-FIU president. “We’ve built out the union stronger than we were at this time last year. We’re more prepared to do the essential work that we’ve been doing here at FIU.”

Scarffe estimated that the percentage of faculty paying union dues has jumped “more than 20 percentage points” since last year, a significant number.

“That said, I would never thank them for this bill. It’s absolutely damaging. It’s absolutely unnecessary,” said Scarffe.

“When coupled with the attacks on higher education ... it definitely woke faculty up to the principles of shared governance and unionization and labor."
Eric Scarffe, UFF-FIU president.

The union has not yet filed its annual recertification report in which it will post its specific numbers, but Scarffe said it will be safe for now from the threat of being decertified.

Dean Black, the Republican state representative from Nassau County who sponsored SB 256 in the Florida House, told The Florida Roundup that the new state law is simply intended to give workers a say in whether they want union representation or not, and that unions that justify themselves through strong buy-in will stay alive, as unions that do not might find a lack of support, leading to decertification.

"The law doesn't decertify them. The workers may choose that," said Black. "The power to make these decisions rest with the workers themselves."

The fact that police, firefighters and correctional officers are exempt from the law is justifiable, said Black, because those jobs are frequently treated differently. Opponents have called the exemptions a double standard meant to uphold the power and political support of unions that tend to align themselves with Florida Republicans.

 United Teachers of Dade faces a potential decertification under a new state law as it sends a snapshot of its numbers to the State of Florida.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
United Teachers of Dade faces a potential decertification under a new state law as it sends a snapshot of its numbers to the State of Florida.

"We treat them differently for purposes of retirement, and all manner of things. And so they are ordinarily treated as an entirely separate entity," said Black.

The union for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office had 16% of eligible workers paying dues last year and it faces no threat of decertification; the Miami-Dade teachers' union United Teachers of Dade had over 56% of members paying dues, and it is being threatened with decertification.

A current bill being sponsored by Rep. Black would expand exemptions for paramedics, 911 call operators and some hospital workers, sectors that are at risk of losing their labor unions under current law.

The proposal would also exempt many public transportation unions from the increased regulations. Federal law threatens to cut off funding for public transportation agencies that abridge collective bargaining rights. A whopping $800 million for Florida is at stake.

More members — and more resources

The sharp increase in membership and professors paying union dues means that the FIU chapter of the statewide union has far more resources than it did before.

People who were once unengaged got personally involved with re-organizing the union, shifting members to a new dues paying system, and re-started workplace conversations about improving working conditions in forthcoming contract negotiations.

“Because we have more members and we have more people willing to do the work, we can actually expand our capacity. So where we might have previously shied away from a fight because we just didn’t have the resources to do it, now I think we can take on even more,” said Scarffe.

“This is an ongoing process and we’re gonna have to work very hard to keep our numbers up. But hopefully as part of that fight and part of that process, people can really start to see the value in unions again. And maybe that can help start to make some change, such that we can get off the back foot.”

Conversations have already begun about how to use increased capacity and resources to support other public sector unions who are caught in the process of being decertified or have already been fully decertified, added Scarffe. No decision has been made about what that support might look like, but that will be a big question over the next year.

The fact that thousands of public sector workers have lost their labor unions in Florida under SB 256 is “incredibly sad,” he said. But on the flip side of that coin, some unions like UFF-FIU have been reinvigorated by the “shock to the system” that the law represented.

“It definitely woke faculty up that if their interests are gonna be protected, they need the union there to represent them and keep the contract strong,” said Scarffe.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.