TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a significant ruling on Friday, an administrative law judge dismissed a challenge filed by police and firefighter unions against the implementation of a new law that imposed additional restrictions on unions representing government employees. The challenge, initially filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association in July and later joined by the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Teamsters, and the Fraternal Order of Police, was rejected by Judge Robert Cohen in a 33-page order.
The law, which was approved earlier this year by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, included provisions to prevent union dues from being deducted directly from public workers’ paychecks. However, it exempted unions representing law-enforcement officers, correctional officers, and firefighters from these restrictions. The unions representing public-safety workers contested the rules developed by the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, arguing that they would improperly apply the restrictions to bargaining units consisting of civilian workers, such as dispatchers and 911 operators, who were represented by law-enforcement and firefighter unions.
The unions contended that the exemptions from the restrictions were intended to cover all workers represented by public-safety unions, not just law-enforcement officers, correctional officers, and firefighters. They argued that the proposed rules limited the scope of these exemptions based on the classification of members within individual bargaining units, rather than applying the exemptions to the entire employee organization. Lawyers for the Police Benevolent Association stated in the challenge, “Under the proposed rules, the PBA and the members of the individual bargaining units comprised only of civilians, would not be exempt.”
However, Judge Cohen sided with the Public Employees Relations Commission, ruling that it did not exceed its legal authority and that the rules were not “arbitrary or capricious.” Cohen acknowledged the importance of civilian personnel who support and closely work with law enforcement and firefighters, such as dispatchers, EMTs, paramedics, and helicopter pilots. He noted that while these personnel are vital to the success of these agencies, the Florida Legislature had the opportunity to specifically exempt them but chose not to do so. Cohen suggested that the unions should approach the Legislature to seek clarification or amendment of the law to include such essential personnel in the future.
This case, heard at the state Division of Administrative Hearings, is one of several challenges filed by unions against the new law. Others have been filed in state and federal courts by unions representing educators and municipal workers. However, none of these challenges have succeeded in blocking the law thus far. The law not only prevents dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks but also requires union members to fill out new membership forms with government-approved language and mandates recertification of unions as bargaining agents if less than 60 percent of eligible employees are members.
Supporters of the changes argue that they promote transparency for union members, while opponents criticize the Legislature’s motives, accusing them of “union busting.” The exemption of public-safety unions from the restrictions has raised questions, as organizations like the Police Benevolent Association and the firefighters union have been politically supportive of DeSantis and other Republicans, while teachers unions, for example, have been some of DeSantis’ most vocal critics.
In conclusion, the decision by Judge Cohen to dismiss the challenge filed by police and firefighter unions against the new law imposing restrictions on unions representing government employees marks a significant development in the ongoing legal battles. As unions representing educators and municipal workers continue their own challenges in state and federal courts, the impact and implications of these restrictions on unions in Florida remain a subject of intense debate.