Florida's public employees fight privatization bill
Mark Piotrowski
March 2001

It's payback time!

For years, unions in Florida have been fighting Governor Jeb Bush's rollbacks aimed at working people, including last year's fight over Bush's plan to eliminate Affirmative Action. But the union-led post-election demonstrations against the Republican theft of the White House may have been the last straw.

Along with civil rights and feminist organizations, state unions and the AFL-CIO organized thousands of people from all over the state to come to Tallahassee in an attempt to stop George Bush from stealing the United States Presidency -- which he lost in the November election.

And now, resident Bush's brother Jeb and his cronies in the Florida Legislature are going after these unions and the public employees they represent with full force.

If Bush and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami) have their way, all state employees, including university employees, will basically become permanent temps, serving "at the will" of their supervisors and managers.

Diaz-Balart has introduced House Bill 369 which would gut the State of Florida's employment system by eliminating the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) and stripping away most of the basic protections public employees have won by years of organizing and union contract negotiations.

But they are in for a fight. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been organizing packed town hall meetings across the state. People had to be turned away from the one last month in Tallahassee.

In addition to some good, old-fashioned political payback, Diaz-Balart's bill and Bush's plan to abolish the Board of Regents, are nothing more than the latest attempt to dismantle Affirmative Action and give in to corporate greed by privatizing state services.

This is really what Bush wants: To hand over public services to his friends in big business and his corporate campaign donors.

But for privatization to occur Bush has to basically manufacture a crisis in the state of Florida. His plan is to cut the state employee workforce by 25% over the next 5 years is a pretty good start. Along with cutting their budgets--all in the name of "efficiency"--he hopes to cripple state agencies to the point where they can't provide vital public services adequately. Then he can hand those services over to for-profit corporations.

But to slash the state workforce by 25% he first has to get rid of the hard-fought protections public employees have won over the last 25 years. That's where Diaz-Balart's HB 369 comes in.

"The goal of the latest business-supported [Bush] program [HB 369] is to make state employees as disposable as those in the private sector", attorney Linda Miklowitz, head of the Tallahassee Chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW), told the Tallahassee Democrat recently (February 12).

And as American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3340 President Sharon Bauer points out, its not just the workers who are punished by privatization--but everyone in the state who will lose out when services that we all pay for through taxes are handed over to for-profit corporations.

In their publication "Privatization: The Public Pays," AFSCME describes how and why. "[The legislature] seeks to cut costs in the short-term by selecting companies that drive out unions and drive down wages and benefits. In the long run, the quality of these services suffers from the loss of skilled employees and the failure to attract qualified new workers." ( www.afscme.org/private)

An end to seniority & Affirmative Action?
But first things first. First the Republicans have to make it possible to get rid of public employees -- many who are covered by union contracts. Among the changes proposed by Diaz-Balart's HB 369:

Going After PERC
The centerpiece of Diaz-Balart's bill is the abolition of the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) which oversees the career service system and protections for public employees throughout Florida.

Currently, all public employees in the state are provided basic "career service" protections on the job. When they are fired, suspended, laid off, demoted, transferred more than 50 miles away or have their pay reduced, they have the right to appeal these actions to PERC. Workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement can appeal either on these career service grounds or contract grievance grounds to PERC.

HB 369 would replace PERC with a "three member executive board" in the Department of Management Services. This board would be appointed by the Governor. Unfair Labor Practices would be handled by an Executive Director appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the Governor. These changes are basically like asking a wolf to guard over a hen house.

Not Using the P-Word
Of course, Diaz-Balart doesn't use the word "privatization", but like the saying goes: "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck--it's probably a duck".

Corporations stand to make millions of dollars in profits if programs like education, health care and transportation are privatized (or further privatized). They basically get a service or program--say a public school that receives an "F" grade--to run without having to put in any start-up costs such as building the school, developing a curriculum, or training staff. All of the start-up costs have been public; all the profits are privatized.

But in order to privatize a state service, lawmakers first have to convince, or in most cases trick, the public into believing that the public sector isn't working. The quickest way to do this is to slash budgets and staff from state agencies, crippling them and their work providing services to all Floridians.

Governor Bush started this ball rolling last year when he put all state agencies through a "budget exercise." He asked department heads to say what they would cut if their agency or program was forced to cut 25% of its staff. Never did he ask if their agency actually could withstand a 25% cut, if they actually needed more or less money, simply what they would do if their workforce was cut by 1/4. And at no time have their been any studies about the effects of such cuts on the vital public services these agencies provide. And what choice did these agencies have? It's part of a lose-lose trap Bush was luring them into.

If they say "here's what we'd do with 25% less staff," they have basically written the guide for the next round of Bush's budget cuts in public services.

If they say the agency can't survive with 25% fewer staff, Bush will paint them as bloated public agencies: The dreaded "big government."

In either case the ultimate goal is to continue to create a perception that the Florida government is too big and inefficient--a necessity to shoving privatization down people's throats.

But that perception simply isn't reality.

"Florida state government is a bargain," said Bauer. "According to a report released last year by the state's Division of Human Resource Management, Florida has the lowest payroll cost per citizen in the country and the third-lowest ratio of public employees to the population."

Organizing a fightback
As part of their "orange-ribbon" campaign, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been organizing town hall meetings to packed crowds across the state. (To learn more about AFSCME's "orange-ribbon" campaign call them at 850-222-0842.)

AFSCME, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), Graduate Assistants United (GAU) and other unions around Florida are trying to get the word out about the dangers of HB 369 and the threats and dangers associated with privatization.

They are urging citizens to call or write the members of the House Council for Smarter Government (the last stop for HB 369 before it reaches the House floor) and ask them to vote against HB 369 when it is placed on their agenda.

Members of the "House Council for Smarter Government" are:

Gaston Cantens (R-114), Chair,

Ken Gottlieb (D-101),
Vice Chair 850-488-0145

Gustavo Barreiro (R-107)

Fred Brummer (R-38)

Larry Crow (R-49)

Mario Diaz-Balart (R-112)

Hank Harper (D-84)

Bruce Kyle (R-73)

Richard Machek (D-78)

Jerry Melvin (R-4)

Stacy Ritter (D-96)

Ken Sorenson (R-120)

For more information locally, contact the Alachua County Labor Party at 375-2832 or come to our next general meeting: Friday, March 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the IBEW Union Hall (2510 NW 6th St.).

Mark Piotrowski is the co-chair of the Alachua County Labor Party. He would like to thank Laura Gross, Paul Donnelly, Jenny Brown, Candi Churchill and Sharon Bauer for their assistance with this article.

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