BY GRADUATE ASSISTANTS UNITED AT UF
While the campaign to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions in Wisconsin has captured national headlines, similar measures being proposed here in Florida have received far less attention. Two bills in our state legislature would be no less devastating in their effects. Although these bills do not explicitly criminalize unions—to do so outright would be unconstitutional—their combined impact could essentially render unions impotent.
HB 1023 would require unions to have 50 percent membership by July 1 of this year in order to retain the right to negotiate contracts on behalf of employees. SB 830/HB 1021 would prohibit public-sector unions from collecting dues via payroll deduction, making dues collection a logistical nightmare.
With the passage of these bills, Florida politicians would hypocritically hold unions to a far higher standard than they hold themselves: while unions must achieve 50 percent membership from among all potential members to continue to represent them, a political candidate may be elected to office with a mere plurality of those registered voters who actually turn out. Governor Rick Scott, for example, received only 48.9 percent of the votes cast in the 2010 election, with a mere 48.7 percent of registered voters casting a ballot. In other words, he holds office despite receiving votes from less than a fourth of all registered voters in Florida.
The Teaching Assistants’ Association has been at the forefront of the resistance against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin. Here in Florida, Graduate Assistants United (GAU) has similarly taken up the cause. GAU, which has represented the interests of graduate students at UF for 30 years, has made it a top priority to meet the 50 percent threshold and is in the midst of a rigorous membership drive. Because Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning employees receive the benefits negotiated by unions whether or not those employees are union members, many people do not understand why it is so important to join.
Should GAU lack 50 percent membership by July 1, GAs would lose representation and their current contracts. Those contracts, negotiated by GAU, guarantee all the rights GAs currently enjoy: free health insurance, minimum stipends, maximum class sizes, tuition waivers, workload limits, fee deferment, due process and many other basic working benefits.
Additionally, these legislative measures will have consequences far beyond the immediate impact felt by GAs. If UF ceases to offer applicants the sort of package GAs currently receive, the university will become less competitive and fail to attract the best graduate students. Because GAs teach the majority of lower division courses, undergraduate students will no longer have the high quality of instruction to which they have grown accustomed, and UF’s prestige will suffer, and so will UF graduates’ careers.
As in Wisconsin, lawmakers in Florida are using the rhetoric of budgetary crisis to justify these measures. Also as in Wisconsin, they are having a hard time explaining how debilitating unions will help fill state coffers. We do know these bills, should they become law, will have an economic impact here in Gainesville: if grad students are forced to buy health insurance and pay higher tuition, they will each have thousands fewer dollars to spend at local businesses each year.
For more information, you can visit GAU’s website at www.ufgau.org.