Florida teachers on edge as new law threatens their unions electricity dance moms

If they fall short, they could lose their authority to negotiate working conditions and pay with the school boards. And many might find themselves in that spot: Some larger districts including Miami-Dade and Pasco hover just below the level, as do some smaller ones including Calhoun.

He contends that the Florida Constitution does not allow legislators to pass a law that impairs the rights in an existing contract. Even if a union cannot maintain certification as an exclusive bargaining representative for the teachers, Meyers argued, "there is a contract that is in force and effect. Any collective bargaining agreement would remain in effect."

First, a union submits its registration to PERC, now with its participation report. If it doesn’t have 50 percent of all eligible personnel paying dues, it next can submit a petition signed by 30 percent of the bargaining unit seeking a new certification vote.

Currently, the FEA reports that all but maybe a dozen local unions are below the 50 percent threshold, and they’re pretty close. Numbers are "fluid," communications director Sharon Nesvig said, depending on when teachers retire and get hired.

That scenario could leave teachers and other instructional employees, such as classroom aides, without any organization to bargain on their behalf. They could go to the district individually to represent themselves, or the district could impose terms of employment without negotiating.

Bob Boyd, general counsel for the Professional Educators Network of Florida, said the alternative to collective bargaining is not as bad as some represent. His organization provides legal and liability coverage for teachers, and advocates for professional compensation without either negotiating or getting involved in political issues.

"If you look around the country, Georgia and other states, collective bargaining is not a panacea," Boyd said, noting the model creates adversarial relationships. "I would say not to panic. There’s other models in other states that can generate better salaries and better benefits."

Wisconsin’s law, adopted in 2011, led to a 40 percent decrease in union membership, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. But some organizations continue to seek certification, the paper reported in December, because of the policy issues they can continue to influence.

"We are organizing around it," said Don Peace, United School Employees of Pasco president. "We are trying to illustrate the worth, the value of the contract, the language, the opportunity the union has to bargain. We want to make people aware what life would be like without someone advocating for them."

Many of the unions representing teachers are close to meeting the level needed to avoid the added bureaucracy. Raising perhaps greater concern is the status of the groups representing instructional aides, who in some counties are organized separately from teachers.

"They are absolutely essential to our neediest kids and our most medically fragile kids but they make a lot less money because they’re not a classroom teacher," said Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements. "So there’s a smaller percentage of them who feel like they can afford to actually join the union."

He anticipated that unions won’t disappear, but rather be distracted from their primary roles while annually demonstrating they deserve to continue operating. He also expected legal challenges to the law, focusing on the state’s right to work status.

Florida law and court precedent have made plain that the state can’t condition the right of an employee to collectively bargain — guaranteed in the state Constitution — on payment of a fee, Meyer said. By predicating the right to bargain on getting 50 percent of eligible employees to pay dues, he said, the Legislature set up a plan with constitutional flaws.