Officials and UNF students weigh in on public-sector protests


UNF faculty and education reform advocates say “No” to stripping away unions’ collective bargaining rights and the dismantling of the public sector, while others attest unions aren’t pulling their weight. 

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the state legislature are pushing a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most public sector employees. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich is supporting a state Senate bill that would ban collective bargaining for public employee unions. Potential Republican presidential hopefuls, including Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have all supported the bill.

Gov. Rick Scott said Feb. 22 he agrees with unions’ rights to collective bargaining, the process of negotiations between employers and their representatives.

“My belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” Scott said on WFLA Radio in Tallahassee.

Days later, Scott reversed his stance.

“If you didn’t have collective bargaining, would it be better for the state? Absolutely,” Scott told Bloomberg News.

Scott also said Walker and other governors trying to curb collective bargaining rights are “absolutely doing the right thing.”

So far, legislation to curb collective bargaining rights has not surfaced in Florida. But Scott said he would sign the new version of Senate Bill 6, the controversial teacher-quality bill, which former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed.

Another bill in the works would require everyone in the public sector, excluding firefighers and police officers, to give 5.8 percent of their pay to go toward their pensions, and 12 percent into their health care plan.

In addition to those two bills, which Scott said are about salvaging the state’s budget shortfall, he has proposed other major reductions to government spending, along with tax cuts for property owners and businesses – estimated to shrink the overall state budget from $70.3 billion to $65.9 billion in 2011-2012.

Scott’s proposed budget for next year includes billions of dollars in education cuts, $340 million of which is from college and university education and research. By not restoring federal stimulus dollars, Scott’s plan essentially makes up lost federal cash by keeping funding flat for Bright Futures scholarships Florida students receive.

The overall spending plan cuts education across the board by more than $3 billion. State university education and research would get $2.07 billion in the governor’s budget, a $217 million decrease from this year.

State college and vocational programs would get $996.6 million, which equals a $123 million cut.

Regarding the argument of whether public-sector unions play a significant role in terms of state’s revenue dollars, UNF Faculty Union President and political science professor Henry Thomas said it’s a faulty argument.

“The entire argument that unions are causing budget deficits is false,” Thomas said. “These budget deficits are caused by the horrible economy that we’ve faced since 2007.”

Most of the public sector’s, unionized workforce is very low paid employees, like janitors, garbage men and teachers.

Thomas said blaming unions is a scapegoat for what Wall Street is responsible for.

Even though these lower-level positions receive better benefits than they would have been receiving if they were in the private sector, their wages are quite low, he said.

The second part of this, Thomas said, is that unions are closely identified with the Democratic Party. Particularly in states Republicans control, unions are seen as a political opponent.

And so part of the attack on unionization is a partisan attack on political opponents, he said.

“It’s not talked about that way, but that’s what’s really going on.”

And that’s even though Republicans exist in unions. As institutions, their unions support democratic candidates and make partisan elections in republican states closer as a result, Thomas said.

“And that is what Republican legislators are trying to put an end to.”

Deliberation among Florida legislators has not yet convened. But Thomas said we will likely see buses of teachers heading to Tallahassee once they do.

Public-sector unions create a powerful interest group, said Kevin Mooneyhan, member of the National Tea Party Patriots Organization and graduate school senior.

Unions dictate their own wages to politicians, who they own, having donated to their elections, Mooneyhan said.

“Governments need to shift with the times,” he said.

In the private sector, Mooneyhan said, labor is in direct conflict with management because unlike government, private companies have to make a profit at the end of the day.

In sum, Mooneyhan thinks public-sector unionism lacks the economic justifications for private sector unionism, which have real adverse consequences for taxpayers.

As far as how workers should be paid, Mooneyhan thinks a pay-incentive system should be implemented, to encourage workers’ motivation and overall work-ethic.

Brad Talbert, UNF President of College Republicans and political science senior, said protesters are missing the long-term bottom line: “The private sector breeds success.”

Everyone has to make sacrifices, Talbert said. Unfortunately, education is typically the first to get cut because it hosts the majority of public sector jobs.

“It’s either raise taxes or cut spending,” he said.

David Jaffee, UNF executive director of sociology and Fulbright scholar, said this issue is all part of a larger right-wing agenda, “financed by corporate America to eliminate one of the last sources of resistance to their complete domination of the political system.”

Jaffee said he has no doubt the actions of Gov. Walker in Wisconsin are closely aligned with the larger ambitions of the Koch Brothers, who own one of the largest privately held energy conglomerates in the U.S., and fund political advocacy groups like the Tea Party and American for Prosperity.

Charles and David Koch reportedly spent over a million dollars to elect Republican governors last year. MotherJones reported Gov. Walker’s campaign received $43,000 from Koch Industries.

“I can only assume that our own Rick Scott was the beneficiary of a portion of the largess,” Jaffee said.

Unions and collective bargaining, Jaffee said, are the only available way for workers to defend their rights and standard of living — and they play an important political function in mobilizing people to support the public sector.

“This is the reason they are being attacked, and this is why they should be defended.”

Concerning Florida’s public school system, it ranks in the bottom quartile of states for funding public schools by any measure, according to the Florida Department of Education.

“We are already $1,600 [per] student below the national average in spending for schools,” said Deborah Gianoulis, chairperson of Save Duval Schools, a part of Jacksonville’s Public Education Fund and the Duval County of PTAs, which helped shut down Senate Bill 6.

“The governor’s proposed budget cuts would cut another $703 [per] student from our school funding,” she said.

Gianoulis said attracting, retaining and rewarding good teachers should be based on a sustainable source of income for public schools over time. It is the state legislature’s responsibility to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide adequate resources for high quality public schools, she said.

“Collective bargaining is the law,” she said. “Negotiation includes both managers and employers determining what is fair. Indeed, it is the state’s paramount duty.”