Teamsters Union Moves to Take Over Florida’s Law Enforcement Unions

The Tallahassee Democrat

Bill Cotterell: Teamsters fight to oust the PBA

All unions representing state employees have a big stake in House and Senate budget talks, which begin today, but the Florida Police Benevolent Association has more than money and jobs on its mind.

The Teamsters union is mounting a serious effort to replace the PBA as bargaining agent for probation and prison officers across the state. How well, or poorly, those employees fare in the state budget talks will certainly influence the outcome of a representation election in the months after the session.

“I think they’re failing,” said Phil Cote, a probation officer in Lakeland who started what he termed “a rebellion” against the PBA. “The Teamsters are going to win this thing.”

Steve Meck, general counsel for the Public Employees Relations Commission, said Teamster supporters filed 7,699 petition cards that appeared to be correct, supporting their petition to take over the PBA’s State Correctional unit of roughly 21,000 employees. Meck said they needed a “showing of interest” from just 30 percent, and PERC issued a “notice of sufficiency” for the matter to go to a hearing officer, who will consider any challenges by either the PBA or the Department of Corrections.

Then, in all likelihood, a mailed-ballot election will be called — giving the prisons and probation officers three weeks to vote on the PBA, Teamsters or no labor representation.

Union politics has always been more interesting with PBA than with other organizations representing state employees. The International Union of Police Associations took representation of state police officers away from PBA a few years ago, but PBA took it back in a rematch election.

The cops and prison officers are more popular than other state employees among legislators. In some sessions, police, correctional and probation employees have received better raises than other government workers, and the PBA endorsement is probably the most sought-after political imprimatur at election time.

The union was strongly behind Republican nominees Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist in four elections for governor, but it backed Democrat Alex Sink last year. There was even a TV ad with a Rick Scott look-alike welcoming menacing-looking prisoners as they walked out of an institution gate — ending with a thug grinning and saying, “Let’s get to work!”

That’s not why Scott wants to cut their special-risk retirement from 3 percent to 2 percent a year, or to make them pay 5 percent into the Florida Retirement System. The governor wants all employees to pay 5 percent (the House wants 3 and the Senate proposes a graduated scale of 2-4-6 percent, based on earnings). But even a political newcomer like Scott can enjoy a little payback.

It’s not clear how the Teamsters could do any better than the PBA for the prison and probation officers. Cote — a 25-year Department of Corrections employee who said he has worked both in prisons and, now, in the Lakeland probation office — said his wife works in management for Disney and has to deal with Teamster bus drivers all year.

“We know how to make management’s life a living hell, every single day of the year,” he said. “I’d do my damnedest to do that for Rick Scott.”

With no more of a campaign promise than that, the Teamsters could probably dislodge a lot of public-employee bargaining agents. It wouldn’t bother Scott, though, as he and Republican legislators are serenely — some would say contemptuously — in control of whatever they want to do with state workers.

PBA lobbyist Matt Puckett is unfazed by the Teamsters’ tough talk. Right now, the union is focused on the budget negotiations, he said, and there will be plenty of time to get into a survival campaign later, if it comes to that.

“This happens occasionally. It’s a challenge to the status quo, but I think when we lay out our case and they lay out their case, the members will see that we’re a much superior organization,” Puckett said.

“I’m not too concerned about the Teamsters right now,” he added. “We want to make sure the corrections and probation jobs don’t get privatized, that the officers don’t have to make a huge pension contribution, and I don’t want anybody to lose a job. When the session ends, we’ll maybe start worrying about the Teamsters.”

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