The two main unions in the Pinellas County school district have been giving away $100 gift cards via YouTube videos broadcast every afternoon for the past two weeks. The incentives are meant to get people to sign up for the unions’ new payment scheme before Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill prohibiting school districts from collecting union dues.
Sign-ups “are rolling in,” Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said in a video posted on May 17. Don’t stop what you’re doing! Don’t stop now. According to Velardi, the campaign has a sense of urgency since unions representing school employees in Pinellas and across Florida want to reach members and potential members before they depart for summer break.
They need as many individuals as possible to sign up before it gets harder to contact them all. Unions risk decertification, which may leave thousands of workers without a contract or an agent allowed to negotiate a new one if they fail to recruit and maintain membership of at least 60% of eligible workers by the deadline.
Union officials have filed suit to prevent the bill from taking effect, as they believe it violates the Constitution. Nonetheless, they are not taking any chances. Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said, “We are going into schools talking to our members all over the state.” We’re getting ready for every possibility while we battle this law in court.
Many union cases against the state have been unsuccessful. They also don’t want to stop representing workers’ interests in collective bargaining and other contractual matters. “I do want to be very clear,” said Jeff Larsen, operations director for United School Employees of Pasco.
“We will comply with the law, and we absolutely will continue to advocate for our members. We are not going anywhere.” That implies increasing membership much beyond the 50% threshold set five years ago. Unions were able to overcome that obstacle, though many have yet to reach the 60% threshold.
Larsen stressed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication, as staffing structures are prone to change. “The turnover rate in education is such that you have to recruit lots and lots of new members, because they don’t necessarily stay in the system,” he said. “It’s a tough job.”
Growing the union’s membership requires defending its value in the face of persistent attacks from the governor and prominent Republicans in the legislature. Teachers’ unions, which have historically supported Democrats, have been a frequent target of the Republican Party.
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Republican senators brushed aside concerns over SB 256, arguing that it would make unions more accountable to their members and open about the decisions they make. They flatly denied that the bill would make it harder for teachers to bargain collectively.
Pinellas unions have tried to win over members and the public by hosting events like screenings of the Disney film “Ruby Bridges,” which is based on the life of a civil rights activist but was recently challenged at a local school. Dinner was served, and a panel discussed the significance of Black history afterward.
“We’re trying to change the opinion people have about unions,” Velardi said. The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association held a press conference the day before DeSantis signed the measure to discuss this same topic.
Union officials took turns rejoicing over the district’s recent agreement to implement the two annual pay increases (or “steps”) specified in a previously publicized pay schedule. Months of failed discussions and an impasse case in front of a special hearing officer preceded the deal.
Letecia Nathan, a kindergarten teacher at Tampa Heights Elementary School, stated, “Without our union, it would have been impossible to even get those steps from our district.” Rob Kriete, head of the teachers’ union in Hillsborough, said that 63 percent of the faculty there are members.
“We’re confident that we’re going to do the work that needs to be done to make sure that we not only maintain our membership but build our membership,” Kriete said. “Our members recognize that what we do goes beyond the contract. It is advocating for their careers and advocating for the students of the district.”
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According to Velardi, union membership among Pinellas County’s educators is roughly 55%. She did note, however, that some people are hesitant to enroll in the new electronic dues paying mechanism out of fears for the safety of their personal information. The union has not yet figured out how to accept electronic payments in lieu of the $690 yearly charge.
Membership could decline and participation rates could fall without the payment scheme. According to Velardi, the union is using several means to reach out, including frequent mailings, contests, and social media posts. The union’s role in the workplace should be emphasized.
“I don’t think they understand exactly what they have to lose,” she added, referring to the fact that numerous provisions in the contract, such as the district paying 80% of health insurance costs, were negotiated for at great length. They won’t just give you stuff if you’re the only one at the table.
Larsen concurred, noting that the safeguards provided by Pasco’s 82-page contract might be nullified if the bargaining unit were to be disbanded. If one party to a contract goes out of business, it’s unclear if the deal may still be enforced, according to Spar.
The union is challenging this as part of its case. Several union officials have stated their belief that many teachers will quit if an agreement is not reached. “We don’t want to be in a place where there is no contract for our employees,” Larsen said.
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