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Investigation shows the scope of a sweeping anti-union labor law passed in Florida

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 42,000 public-sector workers in Florida have lost their union representation. That's because of a new law that Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed. This law makes it harder for unions that represent state and local employees to stay in business. It bans the union from having union dues deducted from paychecks. And then if some workers fail to pay, the union is decertified. Reporter Danny Rivero first exposed this on our member station, WLRN, in Miami. Danny, good morning.

DANIEL RIVERO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these 42,000 people? That's a large percentage of Florida state workers, as I understand.

RIVERO: It is. This is people like janitors, groundskeepers, park employees in the state, accountants, just office clerks. They have lost their unions. It's a lot of people. This law does exempt unions for police, firefighters and correctional officers from these new requirements, but it does touch many, many public-sector workers in Florida that simply haven't been able to hit the new dues-paying member requirements under the law, which is that 6 in 10 workers need to pay their dues or else the union dies.

INSKEEP: How does this approach by governor DeSantis' administration and the legislature match up with the laws that existed in Florida before?

RIVERO: Right. So Florida's a little odd with labor law. It's one of only six states in the union to have collective bargaining explicitly written into the state constitution. But it's also, at the same time, a right-to-work state, which means no one can be forced to pay union dues. So the fine line that state Republicans are trying to walk here is to impose new regulations and rules around public-sector unions while maintaining that they're not restricting the right to unionize. So I talked with Republican Representative Dean Black, who sponsored the bill in the Florida House, and this is how he described it to me.

DEAN BLACK: The law doesn't decertify them. The workers may choose that through an elective process, and those are the rights that are guaranteed to them under the Florida Constitution.

INSKEEP: OK. Are some unions, then, being decertified?

RIVERO: They are. Some unions are out of business, and some are just throwing in the towel. I talked to Lanny Mathis Jr., for example. He's a business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that's represented over 400 workers in the city of Ocala for more than a decade. And he told me, essentially, that union is done. It's finished.

LANNY MATHIS: I'm very sad. I think that there's no great buy-in to reorganize, and I'm just afraid there's nothing we can do.

RIVERO: So unions have filed challenges to the law in the courts, and we'll have to see how they play out. But in the meantime, we're going to see a lot more people lose labor unions in Florida. From port workers in Fort Lauderdale to lifeguards at public beaches, they stand to lose their unions if they don't hit these new requirements.

INSKEEP: Well, is this going to kill all public-sector unions in Florida?

RIVERO: No. I mean, some unions have really stepped up to the shock to the system of this new law, as one person put it to me. Like the teachers union in Manatee County near the Tampa Bay area - Pat Barber is the president of the Manatee Education Association, and she told me they've gained a lot of people paying dues ever since this law passed. But at the same time, she would not say thank you to state Republicans for passing it.

PAT BARBER: I do not feel that having a guillotine over the unions' head is an incentive to be stronger and more organized.

RIVERO: So that union has had a contract for 50 years, and this was the first time it was even threatened with the hint of being decertified by the state.

INSKEEP: Daniel Rivero with WLRN in Miami. Thanks for the reporting.

RIVERO: Thanks for having me, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.