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Teachers unions in the Tampa Bay area are fighting to stay afloat under a new, stricter state law

pinellas union president stands in front of a box of cards
Nancy Guan
The Pinellas County Teachers Association collected over 4,000 interest cards in hopes of re-certifying their union.

SB 256 raised requirements for public-sector unions to remain certified. Some teachers unions in the Tampa Bay area are fighting to survive.

At the Pinellas County Teachers Association office in Largo, union president Lee Bryant pats his hand atop four boxes with an audible thump.

More than 4,000 pieces of paper are tucked inside, each representing a teacher’s support for their union.

“There is a tremendous amount of working hours that have gone into organizing, and working the campaign to try to get the signatures,” said Bryant.

What's inside the boxes are signed interest cards — and they're what’s needed to keep the PCTA afloat for another year.

It’s part of what’s called the recertification process, something public sector unions in Florida have to do after a 2023 state law made it harder for them to remain certified.

SB 256 posed two specific challenges for teacher’s unions: it raised the required number of dues-paying members from 50% to 60%, while also making it harder to collect those dues.

The law eliminated the kinds of deductions where employees had their dues taken out of their paychecks automatically. Instead, new and old members alike had to sign up for a new payment system.

“This is an attempt to destroy us. ... Senate Bill 256 has created a lot of ambiguity and chaos in the world of unions.”
Stephanie Yocum, Polk Education Association president

Bryant said that actually caused the Pinellas union to lose membership.

“Some people were uncomfortable with setting up a draw out of their bank account afterwards. They were much more comfortable having it taken out of their paycheck before it went in,” he said.

In addition, with Florida being a right-to-work state, all eligible employees reap the benefits of the union contract whether they pay dues or not. That can make it difficult for employees to understand why it’s important to be a dues-paying member.

After months of educating teachers on the new law, along with campaigning and recruiting, the number of dues-paying teachers for PCTA still fell short.

Their previous membership of 53% dropped to 44%, falling below the threshold needed before their certification deadline in February. Each union has a different renewal date depending on when they were established.

That effectively puts the union at risk of decertification — meaning employees could potentially lose their pay raises and other benefits protected under the contract that was negotiated by the union — unless they complete the recertification process.

What does it take to re-certify?

Bryant and other union leaders describe the recertification process as a drain of time, energy and resources.

To re-certify, unions must collect interest cards from 30% of all employees they represent, also known as their bargaining unit, within a month of their certification deadline.

Then those cards are sent to Tallahassee to the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission to be counted. Once that percentage is verified, PERC will run an election where a majority of the voters must opt to keep their union.

The costs of the election are split between the school district and union, which could run in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the size of the bargaining unit.

If they fail to collect those cards or fall short in the election, the union is fully decertified.

“This is an attempt to destroy us,” said Polk Education Association president Stephanie Yocum. The Polk union was also unable to meet the 60% threshold and launched their own interest card campaign in hopes of staying alive for another year.

“Senate Bill 256 has created a lot of ambiguity and chaos in the world of unions,” she said.

A system buckling under the law

Data on which unions have fully decertified are not readily available from any state agency, and some bargaining units have yet to reach their certification deadline.

However, WLRN in Miami created a database that is updated periodically to reflect which unions have met the state’s new requirements, which are at risk of decertification, and which have fully decertified.

Their investigation found that four bargaining units under the Association of Federal State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that represented more than 40,000 public sector workers have been fully decertified.

No unions representing K-12 teachers have officially decertified — yet.

And, some have managed to reach 60% of dues-paying members, including the Sarasota and Manatee school districts.

Others, like Pinellas and Polk, are at risk if they don’t meet recertification requirements.

Lee Bryant, PCTA president, holds up a sticky note
Nancy Guan
Lee Bryant, PCTA president, holds up a sticky note with the number of interest cards collected. Members in the office post up a new note periodically to keep track.

Their leaders say they’re confident, though, that they’ll pass. With more than 4,000 interest cards and counting, Pinellas has the support of nearly 60% of the bargaining unit, double of what’s needed to hold an election.

“We wanted to have a strong showing,” said Bryant.

At last count in February, the Polk union had collected some 5,000 cards, according to Yocum. The union represents about 7,000 district educators.

But, to the frustration of union leaders, PERC has yet to conduct an election for any bargaining units trying to re-certify. The state is allocating more funding to the commission in order to handle potential elections.

Yocum said the unions, meanwhile, are forced to remain in limbo. And, as they’re made to wait, their next certification deadline looms even closer.

“It’s absurd … by the time they [unions] get their recertification, they have to re-certify all over again,” said Yocum, adding that she feels for the staff at PERC, “They don’t have the bandwidth to execute this.”

Teachers unions decry double standard

Proponents of the law said the new requirements are meant to protect workers. Dubbed the “Paycheck Protection Bill," Florida Republicans said the law will create more accountability and engagement between unions and their members.

One of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dean Black (R-Jacksonville), said it gives workers more power over whether they want to be represented by a union.

“The law doesn’t decertify them, the workers may choose that through an elective process,” Black said on a recent episode of The Florida Roundup. “That is right and proper, just as right and proper as it is for me to stand for election before my constituents every two years.”

But union leaders questioned that logic. Andrew Spar is the president of the Florida Education Association, which represents 150,000 members, most of them teachers.

Spar argued that members have always had the option to petition to decertify their union.

“Nobody operates under those scenarios of needing 60%,” said Spar. “Even elected officials don't need to have 60% of all voters in their district voting for them … they only need a simple majority of those who vote.”

In addition, police, firefighter and correctional officer unions do not have to abide by the threshold requirement, an exception that Black said is reserved for public safety workers that protect people.

However, Spar characterized the carve-out as a double standard, favoring groups that have traditionally supported Florida Republicans.

In 2018, former Gov. Rick Scott mandated the 50% threshold specifically for teachers unions. Spar said raising that threshold is part of that effort to be “punitive on teachers” and their unions, who have spoken out against Gov. Ron DeSantis and some of his legislative priorities in recent years.

“Its intent is to make it harder for those who care and work with our kids every day to have a voice,” said Spar. “At the end of the day, teachers and staff and professors want to be able to speak up for students without the fear of losing their job.”

A poster in the Pinellas teachers union office tells people to support public schools.
Nancy Guan
A poster in the Pinellas teachers union office tells people to support public schools.

Staying afloat

The Manatee Education Association has represented its teachers since 1975. After boosting its membership to 72%, the union, which represents about 2,800 teachers, will continue on.

Pat Barber, the current president, said that path wasn’t easy.

“Our people came to understand that if they didn't start talking to their colleagues, one-to-one about what would be lost, we would not be successful,” said Barber. “Talking to those who had never joined the union about the ramifications made the difference here.”

While that outreach strengthened the union’s numbers, Barber doesn’t see that as the intent of the law.

“It's a constant churning and it detracts from the mission of what we're all about. And I believe that's probably the goal of the makers of the legislation,” said Barber.

Meanwhile, teachers unions in Hillsborough and Pasco County school districts – some of the state’s largest — are in the midst of that churn.

The United School Employees of Pasco represents about 10,000 teachers. President Don Peace said they’ve designated one employee to be a full-time recruiter to meet the membership threshold by August.

Since the law went into effect, Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association, said they’ve been “building the union back every single day.”

They’re closing in on the 60%, according to Kriete, with 7,500 out of approximately 13,000 teachers. Their deadline to meet the threshold is March 25.

“We're going to maintain optimism despite the obstacles and the laws that keep getting enacted by our legislature,” said Kriete. “We, as the local union, are going to do everything we can to protect our public schools.”

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.