A new state law derided by critics as a Republican-orchestrated attempt at union busting is having the opposite effect in many counties, with local teacher unions reporting swelling membership rolls.

  • Some unions no longer face dissolution due to law
  • Lawsuit filed to invalidate membership threshold requirement
  • Law's architects did not foresee membership surge

Growth in some local teacher unions has been so robust, they no longer face the prospect of being dissolved under the law's mandate that the organizations maintain a membership roster of at least 50 percent of eligible teachers.

Since the law was passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year, several of the 13 local teacher unions with membership numbers below the threshold are no longer in jeopardy of being shuttered by the state.

In Central Florida, Seminole County's union has grown its membership to 52 percent of eligible teachers, from 48 percent at the start of the year. In Tampa Bay, the Pasco County union has seen its membership hit the 49 percent mark; directors are optimistic the figure will be above 50 percent by the time the group's registration renewal is due in September.

The Florida Education Association, the state teacher union which acts as an umbrella organization for the local unions, has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the threshold requirement. In the meantime, however, FEA officials are heartened by the surge in teachers signing up. 

"Union membership's going up, but we think it's not only because of this latest attack; we think it's just that teachers are realizing that the union's all they've got," said Ron Meyer, the FEA's legal counsel. "I mean, the legislature, the Department of Education, even school boards, to some extent, aren't looking out for their interests."

The law was part of a package of education reforms championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O'Lakes), who has sought to increase state support for alternative forms of education - namely charter schools - during his two-year term, which ends in November.

"The teacher's union is fixated on halting innovation and competition in education," Corcoran said during his inaugural address in 2016. "It flies in the face of common sense and it defies every single study. It is downright evil."

If limiting the power of the state teacher union has been a top priority for Corcoran and other Republican lawmakers, the local union membership threshold requirement is a key interim step. But the law's architects likely didn't foresee the wave of union sign-ups.

The development is particularly impressive given local union membership dues: as much as $850 a year. Meyer believes the law is serving as a call to arms. 

"A lot of people think, 'well, it's perhaps not the best way of doing it, but I'm getting the benefits of my union without having to pay money to support it', and they've been getting along that way for a while," Meyer said. "Of course, the unions want all teachers to be members, and the more members they have, the stronger the unions are going to be."