The Manatee Education Association and its president, Pat Barber, joined a lawsuit filed on Monday, challenging a new state law that could jeopardize the collective bargaining power of Florida teachers unions.
If a union's membership is less than 50 percent of the entire bargaining unit, meaning all union and nonunion employees who benefit from negotiations, the union will face extra steps when it files for recertification.
Manatee's union is one of approximately 13 organizations that fall below the threshold. It represents two bargaining units: teachers and paraprofessionals.
"If we are decertified, our contract with the school system, with the School Board of Manatee County, is no longer in existence — 40 years of negotiations in a contract," Barber said. "Salary schedules, all our working conditions, that is what's at stake."
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The Florida Education Association filed suit in Leon County Circuit Court on Monday, a day after the law went into effect.
It singles out teachers unions, violates teachers' collective bargaining rights and curtails their right to benefit from negotiations while not being members of a local union, the complaint states.
Three employees of the Public Employees Relations Commission are named as defendants: commissioners James Bax and Curt Kiser, and commission Chair Donna Poole. Unions that fall below the 50 percent threshold will petition the group for recertification.
John Showalter, general counsel for the commission, had yet to read the complaint as of Monday afternoon.
"The legislature created the law, and we administer the law that they gave us," he said. "And so ... I really don't have any comment on whether it violates any of their equal protection rights or anything like that.
Manatee's union will file for its annual recertification in December. If the organization is decertified, it can hold an election to gauge whether people in the bargaining unit still want representation — an endeavor that may cost excessive time and money.
Barber said it can be challenging to get accurate numbers from the school district. How many employees work full time? How many work part time? Who is on leave? And who works for a charter school?
The union started informal negotiations with the district in 1974, she said, and its future bargaining power may hinge on the district's data.
Manatee's union currently charges biweekly dues of approximately $35 for teachers, $18 for teaching assistants and $10 for teacher's aides. Financial hardships cause some teachers to put their participation on hold, while others avoid joining altogether, Barber said.
"That's not an unusual thing in a profession where we're constantly struggling to pay any kind of a professional wage," she said.
Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, said the law hurts both union and nonunion educators who benefit from collective bargaining. She spoke during a conference call with reporters.
The new certification requirement was included in House Bill 7055, described in the lawsuit as a "train" that rolled several bills into a single piece of legislation. McCall described the new requirements as "purely vindictive."
Both McCall and Barber said the law would silence educators and embolden special interest groups.
"Our hands are constantly being tied by the legislature, and then they try to undermine our ability to represent our members," Barber said. "Basically, to keep us from speaking out about what they've been doing to public education in the State of Florida."