Florida is anything but ‘free’ as it works to cripple teachers’ unions | Opinion

Florida is losing its freedom — even as our head of state calls us the “Free State.” What is free about banning books, supporting revisionist history, silencing dissent, limiting choice and amplifying bigotry, hatred, violence and harm toward those that may be different from us?

As a Floridian and a parent, I found out it only gets worse. An organization ironically called the Freedom Foundation, a right-wing think tank that has called for the Department of Education to be abolished and is funded by top conservative donors, is spending millions of dollars in Florida on a mission to defund public-sector unions, starting with our teachers.

From my personal experience as a former state senator, I know that the Freedom Foundation is an educational extremist group, based on its policies that challenge workers’ rights, oppose retirement plans and reject comprehensive healthcare benefits.

Their affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a far-right group that connects politicians with corporate sponsors, further reveals their motives. Their involvement has been linked to the introduction of specific bills that align with corporate benefactors that have been chipping away at our freedoms for years.

I witnessed it. It functions as a mechanism that transforms lawmakers into champions of bills that overwhelmingly serve corporate objectives, not the people. Their investment in campaigns paid off this year. It led to the passage of House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 256, a controversial Florida law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that applies to all public-sector unions (except for police and firefighters unions, which usually support Republican candidates). It raises the union density requirement for dues-paying members from 50% to 60% of all “bargaining unit members.”

The bill also prohibits the direct collection of dues through employee paychecks, even though union membership is voluntary in Florida because it is a right-to-work state, therefore employees are not required to join a union or pay union dues, though they still receive the benefits of any union contract.

Now the Freedom Foundation is sending mailers to Florida public employees with disinformation about the state’s union busting bill. Their end goal is to manipulate and mislead union members to ensure unions don’t get the required 60% threshold for membership. All this in the midst of a teacher shortage crisis where Florida is ranked 48th in educator pay.

In stark contrast, unions defend the greater good through the faculty and staff they represent. They advocate tirelessly for essential investment in education for our children and for policies that address the soaring cost of living. The pandemic prompted reassessments of career paths, job demands and work-life balance. Americans today are focused more than ever on pay inequality and workers’ rights. This is evidenced by the August 2023 Gallup polling that showed 67% of Americans approve of labor unions.

Political polarization around educational policy is undeniable. It is up to us, parents and community stakeholders to preserve the hope of a fair and equitable society. That starts with celebrating the critical role public school teachers play, not trying to silence their voices for the sake of a political agenda like the Freedom Foundation, whose ultimate goal is to promote unregulated privatization, inject divisive culture debates into our schools, advocate for costly vouchers programs and spread misinformation and conspiracy theories to fracture our society.

They want to monopolize our tax dollars at all costs, including hindering children’s education. Things that aren’t just impacting my high school daughter, but that will have long lasting effects on our workforce and our freedom to work and prosper.

Annette Taddeo is a former state senator from Miami-Dade County.