color photograph of an outdoor protest. a person holds up a large white sign with black text that reads "support real education not" and red text that reads "desantis indoctrination"
ORLANDO, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - APRIL 21: Students and others attend a Walkout 2 Learn rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Veteran teacher John Roques has been pounding the pavement since late spring, canvassing Miami-Dade County public school teachers and staff to collect dues and membership authorization forms.

Armed with iPads and literature, Roques and other United Teachers of Dade (UTD) staffers and rank-and-file members of the union, which covers teachers, security monitors, paraprofessionals, and clerical workers in Miami-Dade County schools, have spent the hottest Florida summer on record convincing as many workers as they can to fill out a registration form and hand over their banking details so the union can collect dues.  

The stakes are high. Since 1968, when Florida public school teachers led the first statewide teacher’s strike, Miami-Dade teachers have benefited from constitutional and statutory collective bargaining rights. Now, the union that represents public school teachers in the fourth-largest school district in the country is under threat from Senate Bill 256, a controversial Florida law that went into effect July 1.  

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in early May, prohibits the direct collection of dues through employee paychecks, a common practice for unions. The bill also raises the union density requirement for dues-paying members from 50% to 60% of all “bargaining unit members,” putting pressure on the union to recruit more teachers while also successfully establishing a direct dues payment process. 

SB 256 also requires that membership authorization forms include the following statement, emphasizing Florida’s “right-to-work” law:

“The State of Florida is a right-to-work state. Membership or non-membership in a labor union is not required as a condition of employment, and union membership and payment of union dues and assessments are voluntary. Each person has the right to join and pay dues to a labor union or to refrain from joining and paying dues to a labor union. No employee may be discriminated against in any manner for joining and financially supporting a labor union or for refusing to join or financially support a labor union.”

These restrictions apply to all public-sector unions except for police, corrections officers, probation officers, and firefighters. Additionally, if union members participate in an action the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission deems to be a prohibited strike‚—a sick out, for instance—the commission can revoke the union’s certification and right to collect dues. Under Florida law, public-sector employees are prohibited from striking.

UTD has until Oct. 1 to collect all required membership authorization forms and convert more than 16,000 teachers to a new dues collection system, or they risk no longer being certified as the union’s bargaining agent. This would trigger a recertification process and possibly a new election, endangering a union that has existed in some form for more than 40 years.

UTD Communications Director Jude Bruno said many of SB 256’s provisions are unprecedented, though he adds that the state has been after public-sector unions for years. In 2019, Florida passed a bill requiring public-sector unions to have at least 50% bargaining unit density for dues-paying members, a bar the UTD cleared after a hard-fought campaign. While dues payroll deductions represent a new hurdle, Bruno is confident the union will also clear this one.

Lawsuits have already been filed and lost against SB 256 in federal and state courts. In a press release accompanying their federal motion for an injunction, the Florida Education Association argued that SB 256 violated teachers’ First Amendment rights. 

“Gov. DeSantis has made it clear that he is targeting educators because we exercise our constitutional right to speak out against attempts by this governor and others to stymie the freedom to learn and to stifle freedom of thought,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.

Unions like UTD also face opposition from groups like the Freedom Foundation, a 501c(3) conservative think tank that considers public-sector unions “a root cause of every growing national dysfunction in America.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation going out,” said a UTD staffer who asked to remain anonymous for safety. They said organizations like the Freedom Foundation pose as government agencies, sending mailers to teachers and other school employees and posting fliers to discourage them from sharing their banking details.

This pro-SB 256 flier, which UTD shared with Prism, is from a group called Florida Union Oversight. “The department or agency you work for is not out to get you,” the flier reads. “Unions foster an adversarial relationship between employees and employers. Many issues wouldn’t exist without the union fanning the flames.”

Legal-sized white flier from FL Union Oversight, with green heading, listing provisions of SB 256 and including a detachable form at the bottom for more information. "I'm Sticking With My Union! (smiley face)" is handwritten in red marker.
A flier from Union Oversight, one example of pro-SB 256 literature being circulated to UTD teachers. (Courtesy of a UTD staffer)

Because Florida is a right-to-work state, teachers are not required to join a union or pay union dues, though they still receive the bargained-for benefits of any union contract. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Janus v. AFSCME, effectively nationalized “right-to-work” laws for all public-sector unions, holding that requiring public employees to pay union dues violates the First Amendment. 

UTD says right-to-work hasn’t hampered their efforts on behalf of Florida teachers. Recently, the union negotiated a new contract, securing 4-10% pay increases for clerical workers, security guards, teachers, social workers, paraprofessionals, and others, representing $145 million in total compensation. Bruno says this win has only helped their outreach efforts, encouraging members to join the movement.

“We’re getting positive feedback about our tentative agreement, and now it’s just a matter of membership actually ratifying it so that it can actually come into play,” Bruno said. “Now everyone has that incentive because we’re in a situation where, if we don’t hit that 60% threshold, we won’t be able to continue the benefits [we have].”

Roques, who has been an employee in the Miami-Dade school system for more than 30 years, says workers still want the union. Though Roques says there are not as many teachers at union orientation meetings as there have been in the past, the message is resonating. “We were at a teacher orientation even today, and at least 20-30% of the teachers that were there signed up.”

Roques said he has been supporting the dues collection effort and membership drive since April because he believes in the benefits of union membership. “We have a right to have our union and to be able to have planning periods and lunch periods and say, ‘We want to teach this, and the students learn better with this.’” He said most teachers he talks to feel similarly, and the tentative agreement has only increased support.

As for strategies, Roques said one-on-one meetings are best and that he tries to focus on meeting teachers where they’re at and focusing on their specific needs. “I like to ask, ‘Why are you not a member? Why is it you can’t be a member? What stops you from becoming a member?’” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, they listen.”

UTD says they’re gearing up for a hard fight and are working with groups like EdFed, a local credit union, to ease the dues collection conversion. They are also ramping up door-to-door canvassing efforts and working with a firm to do more phone-banking. While there remains much uncertainty about October, rank-and-filers like Roques are optimistic. Because of the dues, people are waiting, he says, “but people are generally concerned with not losing the union.”

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.