by Diana Moreno
On April 16, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of passing a Wage Recovery Ordinance in Alachua County. The coalition behind the victory, The Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, spent months outreaching to the religious and business community, as well as lobbying their elected county representatives to pass a local solution to our state’s wage theft epidemic. But what should have been a night of celebration for workers and organizers in Alachua County was muted by the ongoing legislative session and our representative’s efforts to kill our ordinance in Tallahassee.
When the Florida capitol entered its last weeks of session, activists from across the state were watching closely as three preemption bills tried to move through both chambers. These bills — SB 726, HB 655, & SB 1216 — would have destroyed the Task Force’s efforts to protect workers from wage theft, as well as Orange County’s efforts to win paid sick-leave for their community.
Clearly, our state representatives’ distaste for “big government” disappeared quickly when the bottom line of powerful business and special interests groups was being threatened. In the end, session came to a close with only one of the three bills (HB 655) making it through. We were spared the gutting of our ordinance, although our Orange County friends were not as lucky.
The Task Force faced opposition from the top from the very beginning. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, a powerful force in Tallahassee politics, made it well known that one of their top priorities during this year’s legislative session was to defeat grassroots efforts to pass anti-wage theft, living wage, and paid sick-leave ordinances; and they backed their lobbying efforts with the one thing community activists usually lack — money.
In Orange County’s struggle to get paid sick-leave on the ballot, the opposition was one of the wealthiest and most powerful industries in the state — Disney. We knew that what we lacked in money, we had to make up in public support. Not only that, we spread our efforts to the state level, knowing that our success depended on the death of SB 1216, a bill sponsored by our own state senator.
Our campaign was held together through the unpaid efforts of a few dedicated community members, and the donations and support of area residents. The only large donation we received came through our North-Central Florida Central Labor Council, and it was used to fund a study on wage theft in Alachua County by a research institute at Florida International University.
It took months of presentations and community forums, gathering signatures, and meeting with community leaders and county commissioners to gain legitimacy. We were lucky to have a mostly open and receptive county commission, and lucky that we could count on the solidarity from seasoned anti-wage theft activists from across the state.
The main lesson we learned through this hard-fought campaign is that despite the growing influence of money and outside interests in our state government, a coalition of well-organized citizens can still defeat the status quo in Tallahassee.
Money cannot cover up the fact that workers in this state are in desperate need of better protection, and it cannot silence the voices of the thousands of victims of wage theft who will finally have a means of redress in Alachua County.
We won this time, but the fight is not over. Nothing is stopping our legislators from bringing up these bills again for years to come. It is up to us to continue fighting.
Learn more at the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force’s website at acwttf.wordpress.com.