Florida is not Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s history is Robert LaFollette, the Progressive Party, and the birth of public employee unionism.
Conversely, Florida had the Rosewood Massacre and the Ku Klux Klan. A grand jury recently found that “corruption is pervasive at all levels of government.”
Republican Governor Rick Scott recently signed measures making it harder to vote, moving Florida back toward its Jim Crow past. We are one of several states with no department to enforce wage and hour standards.
Despite these obstacles, faculty members in Florida’s public institutions of higher learning have been building unions in our right-to-work state at an outstanding rate in recent months. At the University of Florida union density was about 20 percent last year. Now it’s over 40 percent and rapidly rising.
One key impetus was the state legislature’s attack on public employee unionism. The Automatic Decertification Bill would have decertified any public employee union with less than half those it represented signed up as members. The cynically named Paycheck Protection Bill would have prohibited unions from deducting dues from paychecks.
While these bills did not pass, they convinced would-be members that public employees are under siege. Equally important to our success was United Faculty of Florida’s recent track record of defending the jobs of laid-off employees, both tenured and untenured.
Colleges across the country have made it clear that tenure no longer means a guarantee of job security. We stressed to faculty that the only real guarantee of due process, security of employment, and salary increases is a union contract.
Professors at Florida State University in Tallahassee are organizing just as fast as at University of Florida, as are instructors at our other major research universities. Faculty at Florida’s unionized community colleges had already built membership rates of 70 percent and higher.
(In this instance Wisconsin, not coincidentally, was like Florida: six groups of university workers there have voted for a union since Governor Scott Walker introduced his plan to eliminate public employee bargaining.)
Each Member An Organizer
In normal times, college instructors tend to work in isolation. We teach our courses, hold office hours, and conduct research mostly as individuals. Our organizing campaign has brought us closer together as colleagues and brother and sister workers. Our campaign adopted the idea that with a bit of peer education, every member can be an organizer.
With the assistance of NEA organizers we gave members the confidence to conduct office visits, interpret the contract, and speak at departmental meetings about the importance of unionism.
Our best teacher was experience. We met informally several times per week to discuss what recruitment pitches worked and which did not. Our lead organizers coordinated an online volunteer sign-up sheet that ensured member-organizers spread out across the entire bargaining unit.
We discovered that one-on-one conversations with potential members worked best. However, we also garnered new members by speaking to faculty at the end of department meetings. We discovered that we needed to modify our informational and recruitment flyers to reflect the divergent experiences of tenure-track and non-tenured instructors and staff.
We held informal social “mixers” where members could update each other on the status of the campaign and just relax and have a good time.
Tying In Politics
Because the state legislature was pushing anti-worker legislation, it was not difficult to weave in the crucial ties between the workplace and politics in our recruitment pitches.
As the rank-and-file coordinator of our organizing drive noted, “We would knock on faculty office doors and start off, ‘You know what Scott Walker’s doing in Wisconsin? Well, it’s coming to Florida, too.’ So I guess you could say it was Walker and Scott and the Koch brothers who helped us.”
Faculty started to see their union in a different way. It wasn’t just about bargaining on campus. It was about the bigger picture of state and national politics, budget cuts to education, and ongoing attacks on public sector workers—us!
For years our union has sponsored rallies and educational events focused on how our students’ needs take a back seat to the relentless defunding of education. Stepping up participation in our central labor council also helped us connect our struggles with those in other sectors of the economy.
Our coordinator observed, “Some new members joined out of solidarity with other public employees. Some started to understand that unions give them a voice in government for all kinds of issues they care about—not just pay and benefits, but the future of education and our state as a whole.”
Involving New Members
Our members devoted themselves to urging representatives in Tallahassee to vote for public education and against the anti-union bills.
This is also how we encouraged our newest members to get involved immediately in union activities. Many newer members found it easier to call a state senator than to make an office visit. We emphasized that both activities were critical to our union’s survival.
While professors are vilified as snobby elitists on cable news, we discovered that many faculty share a profound sense of alienation about their labor.
Our organizing campaign has given faculty the space to think about how valuable our labor power is to the world. One new member in the humanities said, “I joined UFF because we produce the most important products in our society: original ideas, new ways of thinking and perhaps most importantly, criticisms of our past and present reality that may be unpopular but necessary.”
Most faculty members still don’t see themselves as labor activists. But building a successful union movement allowed them increasingly to think of the relationship between their work and the crises in the larger society that affect higher education and democracy.
Paul Ortiz of the United Faculty of Florida, NEA/AFT, is associate professor of history and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.