Given that Florida has had a Republican governor for 20 out of the last 28 years, you might not think of Florida as a hotbed of union activity.
The Sunshine State has the oldest right-to-work law in the country according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Right-to-work laws dictate that an employee cannot be compelled to be part of a union as a condition of his or her employment. At just 7%, Florida ranks 35th in the country for the share of workers currently represented by a union.
But unlike the rest of the country, where union membership continued its long-running decline in 2014, union losses seem to have bottomed out in Florida thanks to an ongoing population influx and skyrocketing costs of living (home prices have increased 35% over the past five years, double the national average).
And in South Florida, where more than a quarter of the state’s population resides, union activity is stirring. And they’re doing battle largely on behalf of the area’s 37% immigrant population.
On Oct. 1, nine custodian workers, all of them Latino immigrants, were laid off from their jobs at the Sunset Place mall in South Miami near Coral Gables after the mall began operating under new ownership. Some of the employees had worked at the mall for nearly two decades. In 2008, the workers voted to form a union represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Now, the union is stepping in to challenge the layoffs. Helene O’Brien, Florida director of SEIU Local 32BJ, said she believes the new custodian subcontractor purposely avoided re-hiring the old staff so that they did not have to collectively bargain with them. The union also organized a protest attended by the mayor of South Miami, Philip Stoddard.
“It’s just a matter of corporate ethics,” Stoddard told the Miami Herald.
Matt Sullivan, the head of the new custodian subcontractor, Coastal Buildings Management, said he simply had his on team in place when his firm won the custodian contract from the mall's new owners, and that he was working to place as many of the former, full-time workers in new jobs as possible in new jobs, though those jobs wouldn't be at the mall. He said he did not know offhand how much the new Sunset employees were being paid.
Forming a union is now also at the center of one of the most ambitious development projects in Miami—a 15-million-square-foot residential-retail development planned for downtown. This summer, dozens of protesters chanting “Black Work Matters” demonstrated outside the development site demanding the right to form a union. The project’s representatives have responded by saying a union is not necessary as jobs and decent wages have been guaranteed in its development subsidies agreement with the city.
Ground zero for South Florida’s union activity has been the University of Miami. In 2006, more than 400 custodial workers voted to strike for the right to form a union. The strike lasted two months and included some workers going on a hunger strike. The campaign was settled when the workers voted to have the SEIU represent them as their union and was recognized by the National Labor Relations Bureau.
Seven years later, they threatened to strike again for higher wages, but eventually came to an agreement for a 35-cent a year wage increase and an extra personal day.
“We won economic and noneconomic changes,” Eric Brakken, the former director of SEIU Local 32BJ’s Florida district, told The Miami Hurricane at the time. “It was about gaining respect on the job.”
Unions still do not have it easy in Florida. According to Dennis Lynch, a labor law professor at the University of Miami, Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s legislature have proposed measures, like holding recertification votes every year, that would make it even harder for workers to form or remain in public sector unions.
He also pointed out that unions are largely absent from construction, one of Florida’s largest industries.
“It’s a tough place to organize because of right-to-work,” he said. “To organize a union [in Florida, the union has to believe it will get strong support from workers, and that a significant percentage is going to pay dues.”
While the SEIU continues to fight for jobs in Dade County, it chalked up one victory this month in neighboring Broward after successfully negotiating a living wage increase for workers at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Although the workers there are not officially unionized, SEIU stepped in on their behalf. They will now see an average wage of $11.68 an hour with health benefits, and $13.20 without.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.