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Public workers outraged by Florida Supreme Court ruling

By staff

Tallahassee, FL – On Thursday, February 17, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that a bill cutting public workers' wages by 3% was constitutional. The so-called pension reform bill requires Florida's public workers to pay 3% of their wage into the Florida Retirement System (FRS). The bill was passed by the Republican-dominated Florida state legislature and signed into law by Governor Rick Scott in 2011 as a part of their larger assault on the rights of public workers and the right to collectively bargain.

The FRS, which guarantees retirement for Florida's 623,000 public workers, was exclusively state-funded and required no outside contributions from employees. In light of the new Florida Supreme Court ruling in this case, Scott v. Williams, the FRS is now a contributory pension program. In the future, the state legislature can continue to cut workers' wages by legislating they pay more into the pension system.

“It's like changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Jose Soto, Co-President of the Graduate Assistants United at the University of Florida. “The Florida Supreme Court seems to think that management can abrogate its contract and abandon its commitments to workers. This isn't the deal that public employees signed up for.”

Trade unions across Florida universally opposed this bill when it came forward in the 2011 legislative session. A wave of protests, organized by Fight Back Florida, Awake the State, and other activist organizations, confronted Governor Scott and the right-wing legislature for its attacks on workers.

The legislature passed the pension bill despite overwhelming public opposition. In response, several public employee trade unions filed a lawsuit against the Governor. In March 2012, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that the bill was unconstitutional, which prompted the Governor to appeal the decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

Immediately after the Florida Supreme Court announced its decision, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said, “Balancing the state budget on the backs of middle-class working families is the wrong approach for legislative leaders and the Governor to take. We’re disappointed that the State’s highest court said this approach was legal.”

During the 2012 election, the Florida AFL-CIO unions formally endorsed and supported the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for retention. One of these labor-endorsed justices, Barbara Pariente, turned into the tie-breaking fourth vote in favor of Governor Scott's pension bill.

“It's a slap in the face to every worker in Florida,” said Soto. “Labor worked to retain Pariente, and after everything, she sides with Rick Scott against workers.”

For many, this momentary defeat is a call to renewed activism and resistance to right-wing austerity measures. Soto said, “Even as many look to the 2014 gubernatorial elections in Florida as an opportunity to oust Rick Scott, the Florida Supreme Court's ruling shows us the limitations of the electoral system and the legal system in fighting for workers rights. We can only stop the attacks on working people by getting organized and fighting back in the streets and on the picket lines.”

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