Florida labor fights “paycheck protection”

Florida’s labor movement is fighting the state’s Chamber of Commerce and legislature, both seemingly intent on passing a bill that would strip public sector unions of their right to engage in political activity.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has spent millions of dollars in attack ads pushing Tallahassee lawmakers to adopt the “Paycheck Protection Act,” prompting unions to begin removing their money from banks associated with the business group.

The bill, which has passed the Florida House of Representatives, would ban state and local governments from deducting any union dues from paychecks at all. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version, SB 830, does leave unions with the right to deduct membership dues. However, labor would not be able to use any of the dues money for electoral work.

“There is no need for the legislature to protect public employees from their own unions, since their membership is voluntary and these unions have regularly scheduled meetings and elections to select their leadership,” read a statement from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 25, which represents Orlando cops.

In Florida, employees decide whether or not they want to join a union, and must agree to have funds deducted from their paychecks.

The police union charges the Florida Chamber of Commerce “has engaged in a false, misleading, and malicious attack on public employee unions.”

Jamie Bellamy, a finalist for Teacher of the Year, went further in a commercial, sponsored by the Florida Education Association, saying, “Politicians and their corporate lobbyists are trying to take away my right to decide how to spend my paycheck how I want.”

And while the Chamber wants to ban public sector unions from political activity, says the FEA, which represents the state’s teachers, “Politicians want to prevent unions from engaging in politics,” though “few of America’s major energy, healthcare and financial companies fully disclose their political spending.”

Labor and its supporters see the Chamber’s backing of the bill – disguised as an effort to protect workers’ paychecks from supposed greedy union bureaucrats – as a way to undo the political power of the labor movement.

Not content simply to protest, the unions have opted to hit the Chamber in the one thing it cares about the most: its pocketbook.

“We respond,” said Chris Sherburne, president of the Professional Firefighters Local 2057 in Orange County, “by choosing to take our business elsewhere,” and added that the union would “no longer do business with organizations that attack our constitutional rights and threaten our very existence.” He was speaking at an April 21 press conference outside the Orlando office of the Chamber.

Further, he said, “We will recommend to all our members and to all public employees that they remove their assets from institutions behind the Florida Chamber of Commerce and let their pocketbooks speak of their displeasure.”

Businesses specifically receiving the “displeasure” are the banks represented on the Chamber’s board of directors: Bank of America, PNC, Suntrust, Wachovia and Regions Bank.

Aside from the firefighters, other Florida unions, including locals of the American Federation of Government Employees, police, teachers and the local AFL-CIO itself will withdraw their assets. In addition, the 20,000-strong Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police was a member of the Chamber, but has now withdrawn its membership.

Withdrawing union funds will cost banks millions of dollars, and, if the 20,000 public employee members heed the call to do the same, the banks could see another $10 million in deposits disappear.

The Chamber has redbaited the public worker unions, calling them anti-business and socialistic. Instead, they say that they are simply fighting for their rights by choosing where to bank. Further, banks that haven’t been involved in attacks on labor will see an increase in business, as funds withdrawn from the anti-labor banks are re-deposited elsewhere.

Referring to the Chambers anti-labor ad blitz, Steve Clelland, president of the Orlando Firefighters local said, “This is a direct response to their direct involvement in these media ads.”

Image: February 2011, rally in Tallahassee, Fla., to support public workers A Florida Studio // CC BY 2.0