February 27, 2024

Judge refuses to block the dues deduction ban, dealing a blow to Florida teachers' unions

TALLAHASSEE — Dealing a blow to teachers unions, a federal judge has refused to block part of a new Florida law that prevents union dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Friday issued a 40-page ruling denying a preliminary injunction sought by the Florida Education Association, the United Faculty of Florida and unions representing employees of the Alachua County, Hernando County and Pinellas County school districts and the University of Florida.

The issue centers on perhaps the highest-profile part of a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved this spring to place additional restrictions on public employee unions. The law prevents government agencies from continuing a decades-old practice of deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks — forcing unions to use other methods to collect money from members.

In seeking the injunction, the education unions argued that the change unconstitutionally violated contracts that require payroll dues deductions. Those contracts were reached before the new law took effect July 1.

Walker agreed with the unions that the “payroll deduction ban has undermined the contractual bargains that their collective bargaining agreements originally struck.”

But Walker concluded that the unions had not persuaded him “that, at this juncture, the challenged provision has substantially interfered with their reasonable expectations regarding their ability to collect dues from payroll deductions.” He wrote that the unions knew they were subject to state regulation and that “alternative methods of facilitating dues collection” were available to them.

“Unfortunately for plaintiffs, neither the law nor the facts allow this court to confidently conclude that they are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief,” Walker wrote. “Instead, this court is faced with evidence that demonstrates that plaintiffs justifiably expected to receive dues through payroll deductions during the life of their collective bargaining agreements because, prior to July 1, 2023, the right to have public employers facilitate the collection of dues through that mechanism was enshrined in the Florida statutes. But the evidence also demonstrates that plaintiffs are operating in a highly regulated field in Florida, including with respect to the asserted right to payroll deductions.”

Walker added that the “now-eliminated statutory right to collect dues through payroll deduction was subject to certain qualifications. And the record shows plaintiffs expected that the Legislature could take action that would invalidate provisions in their collective bargaining agreements. Some plaintiffs even negotiated for provisions allowing for renegotiation upon the invalidation of a term through legislative action.”

Friday’s ruling came nearly three months after Walker rejected an earlier motion for a preliminary injunction in the case. In a June 26 decision, Walker ruled unions had not shown they had legal standing.

Attorneys for the unions then revised the lawsuit to try to address Walker’s concerns. While he found in Friday’s decision that some of the unions had established standing, he turned down the second injunction request for other reasons.

The law drew heavy debate during this spring’s legislative session, with union members from throughout the state converging on the Capitol to fight it. Supporters of the law argued, in part, that it would increase transparency for union members, but opponents described it as an attempt at “union busting.”

In addition to preventing payroll dues deductions, the law includes requiring union members to fill out new government-worded membership forms and requiring unions to be recertified as bargaining agents if fewer than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.

Unions have filed at least three lawsuits and a state Division of Administrative Hearings case challenging parts of the law.

Defendants in the case before Walker include members of the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, members of the University of Florida Board of Trustees and the school boards in Alachua, Pinellas and Hernando counties. The Public Employees Relations Commission is in charge of carrying out the law.

In seeking the preliminary injunction, attorneys for the unions said the dues-deduction ban was hitting unions financially.

“Plaintiffs are already suffering from a reduction in irreplaceable revenue that is about to get much worse,” the unions argued in a legal memorandum filed in July.

But lawyers for the state wrote, in part, that the unions had not shown the state lacked a “legitimate purpose” in approving the change.

“At this stage, Florida asserts the significant and legitimate public purpose of increasing transparency and ensuring public employees are fully informed about the dues they are paying their unions,” the state’s lawyers wrote last month. “Courts have readily concluded that similar public purposes justify state laws that substantially impair public contracts.”

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