Federal Judge Refuses to Block Florida Union Law

A federal judge Monday refused to block key parts of a new Florida law that places additional restrictions on public-employee unions, turning down a request from teachers’ unions that argue the law violates First Amendment and contract rights.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declined to issue a preliminary injunction, ruling that the Florida Education Association and other unions had not shown they had legal standing. The 12-page ruling came after Walker held a more than three-hour hearing Friday.

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The unions sought the injunction against parts of the law that require union members to fill out new government-worded membership forms and prevent union dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.

The FEA and three other unions contend that the membership-form requirement violates First Amendment rights because it would compel them to provide government messages to workers about issues such as Florida being a right-to-work state. But Walker wrote that the law does not require unions to spread government messages.

“(The) challenged provision commands employees who desire to join a union to sign and date the government-drafted form,” Walker wrote. “That they must do so ‘with the bargaining agent’ does not mean the bargaining agent must disseminate the form, post the state’s message, or otherwise communicate any message on the state’s behalf.”

Walker acknowledged that unions likely would play a major role in distributing the forms, at least in part because of another part of the law that will require unions to be recertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.

“But while this may be the most effective and convenient way for plaintiffs to ensure their members sign and date the forms in compliance with the new requirements, the law itself does not command plaintiffs to take this action,” the ruling said. “Moreover, by the terms of the statute, plaintiffs are not directly penalized if they fail to convey the state’s message to members through the required form.”

The unions, which filed the underlying lawsuit in May, also contend that the prohibition on dues being deducted from workers’ paychecks unconstitutionally violates already-existing contracts. Those contracts require payroll dues deductions.

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But Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, said issuing an injunction against that part of the law would “offer no redress for plaintiffs’ injuries.”

The lawsuit is filed against members of the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which is responsible for carrying out the law. But Walker said that even if he issued an injunction against the members of the commission, government agencies would comply with the law and stop deducting dues from paychecks.

“Employers who are party to plaintiffs’ collective bargaining agreements will still be prohibited by law from deducting membership dues from their employees’ salaries, regardless of whether this court enjoins defendants (Public Employees Relations Commission members) from enforcing the prohibition against employers” Walker wrote. “This might be a different case had plaintiffs submitted evidence demonstrating that employers intended to comply with their collective bargaining agreements if this court were to enjoin defendants. But plaintiffs’ evidence demonstrated the opposite — their employers have communicated that they intend to follow state law and cease payroll deductions for voluntary membership dues by July 1, 2023, without any mention of PERC (the commission) or what effect an injunction against PERC would have on their decision to cease payroll deductions.”

Union members from across the state came to Tallahassee this spring to fight a bill (SB 256) that included the restrictions. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the measure, immediately leading to the federal lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida, and unions representing employees of the Alachua County school district and the University of Florida.

Walker’s ruling Monday does not end the lawsuit, but it allows the law to move forward.

Meanwhile, Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday on a request for a preliminary injunction by unions representing municipal workers in South Florida. That challenge argues, in part, that the law violates collective-bargaining rights under the Florida Constitution.

The law applies to most public-employee unions but exempts unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers, and firefighters, which have supported DeSantis and other Republicans politically.

DeSantis and teachers’ unions have repeatedly clashed about education policies, and the Florida Education Association was a key supporter last year of DeSantis’ election opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist.

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