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Higher education faculty unions in the Tampa Bay area say protections are more crucial than ever

Bull statues on USF campus
Carl Lisciandrello
Faculty at the University of South Florida are still recruiting members. The faculty union managed to increase their membership to 55%, but missed the 60% requirement by their March deadline.

Higher education faculty is one group that's feeling the effects of tougher regulations placed on Florida public sector unions. Their leaders say union protections are more important than ever as state laws target certain freedoms.

Higher education faculty unions in the greater Tampa Bay region are fighting to stay certified under tougher state regulations.

While some have managed to increase membership past the state's new 60% threshold, others fell short and must now go through a recertification process.

Faculty union representatives in the region said their members have ramped up efforts to reach employees one-on-one and remind them of the "power of their union."

"Being an individual, you often are at a severe disadvantage in that power dynamic between you and your employer," said Eric Fiske, senator for the Hillsborough Community College faculty union, "that's why it's so important for any faculty, teacher or employee to organize with their peers and their colleagues."

See how teachers unions in the Tampa Bay area are addressing the new law

SB 256, which passed last year, made it harder for all public sector unions — except for some public safety unions — to remain certified by increasing the required number of dues-paying members to 60% and removing the automatic dues payment system that unions have relied on for decades.

The effect of the law is still playing out as unions across the state continue to approach their certification deadlines.

In addition, the state does not publish a central database of which unions have decertified, making it difficult to see the full effects of the law.

Member station WLRN in Miami has created a public database, which helps track the status of unions as records come in.

How are Tampa's higher education unions faring so far?

Hillsborough Community College faculty union, which represents about 336 full-time faculty members, increased their membership to about 70%, said Fiske.

Their recertification deadline isn't until April.

The faculty union has been around for almost 50 years and membership levels have been high even prior to SB 256 passing, said Fiske.

"When you undercut labor, you're attacking the rights, benefits and working conditions of faculty, and you're undercutting our students."
David Hecker, interim executive director of the United Faculty of Florida

The strong base helped, but a lot of time and energy still went into recruiting new members to put the union over the threshold, he said.

"Our core group of representatives really stepped up and had a lot of meetings in people's offices, a lot of face-to-face conversations," said Fiske.

He pointed out that other types of unions and universities could face more uphill battles. Adjunct faculty, for example, tend to have higher turnover, which can make it harder to recruit members. Universities differ in size and work culture too, said Fiske.

St. Petersburg College's faculty union has also surpassed 60% of dues-paying members, said President Jessica Magnani. The union formed in 2022 and represents about 260 employees.

Since its inception, the union has been negotiating its first contract — work that had to be put on hold while the bargaining unit focused on increasing membership to stay afloat.

Starting salaries at the college hover around $40,000, and, for the last two years, faculty have not had raises, said Magnani. That makes it hard to recruit, she added.

"The consensus has been that, this was a way of targeting educators instead of doing the real work that we need done in Florida," said Magnani.

Supporters of the law dubbed SB 256 as paycheck protection for employees, reasoning that unions would have to increase engagement before collecting dues from members.

But union leaders have argued against that, continuing to point to their collective bargaining power.

"The law is blatantly unfair," said David Hecker, the interim executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, which represents over 25,000 higher ed faculty members across the state.

"When you undercut labor, you're attacking the rights, benefits and working conditions of faculty," said Hecker, "and you're undercutting our students."

Faculty at the University of South Florida, one of the state's largest public universities, are still recruiting members. The faculty union managed to increase their membership to 55%, but missed the 60% requirement by its March deadline.

The union represents more than 1,700 members, which presented a challenge compared to smaller institutions, said Steve Lang, president of USF's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida.

That puts the union at risk of decertification, unless they collect interest cards from 30% of the employees they represent and hold an election in which a majority of voters agree to keep the union.

Those cards must be submitted to the Public Employee Relations Commission within 30 days of the union filing their membership count.

"We're going to recertify the chapter if at all possible," said Lang, "We've never been decertified and we don't intend to be."

Lang said they've collected enough interest cards, a campaign that they ran alongside membership recruitment efforts.

Unions more important than ever

Lang said educators are seeing the value of their unions, especially as other state laws undercut certain university departments and programs.

This year, the Florida Board of Education approved regulations that limit the use of public funds for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs — regulations enforcing a law approved by the legislature last year.

This month, the state's flagship university, the University of Florida in Gainesville, terminated 28 positions related to DEI.

The Board of Ed also eliminated sociology as a core requirement, and replaced it with a general American History course.

These moves, according to Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr., ensure that taxpayer money will not "support DEI and racial indoctrination that promotes division in our society."

Another major worry among faculty, said Lang, is legislation undermining tenure in recent years. A law passed in 2022 calls for a post-tenure review every five years, which people in higher education view as weakening job protection and security.

"Some faculty will leave, and some will refuse to come to Florida," said Lang.

Ultimately, these laws and regulations affect the quality of education educators are able to provide, said Hecker of the UFF.

"As far as faculty go, or for that matter, teachers in K-12, our working conditions are our students' learning conditions," said Hecker.

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