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Facing South Florida for Oct. 22: Freedom Foundation/Teachers Union Targeted

Facing South Florida: Freedom Foundation/Teachers Union Targeted
Facing South Florida: Freedom Foundation/Teachers Union Targeted 15:17

MIAMI — For the past several months, public school teachers across South Florida have been receiving mail pieces attacking their union and urging them to stop paying their union dues to the United Teachers of Dade.

Those flyers were then followed by a video released online earlier this month, in which a handful of teachers say they are disappointed with the union, known more commonly as UTD, and announcing the formation of a new group that will try and have UTD abolished.

The mail pieces and video come from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that is financed by wealthy conservative donors who have raised tens of millions of dollars over the years for what they say is a non-partisan effort to educate workers about their rights, but that critics charge is a well-orchestrated national campaign to weaken and destroy labor unions representing government employees.

"These aren't isolated state by state episodes, but rather part of a bigger arc, a bigger campaign to try and defang, defund and demobilize public sector labor unions, particularly teachers unions," said Alex Hertel-Fernandez, a professor at Columbia University who specializes in labor unions.

A former member of the Labor Department in the Biden Administration, he is the author of "State Capture," which documents the far-right's attack on worker rights.

"The important thing to note about organizations like the Freedom Foundation is that they're part of broader networks," Hertel-Fernandez said. "For instance, in this case, the Freedom Foundation is part of the State Policy Network, which is a network of conservative leaning think tanks all across the country that are pushing the same agenda across each state. And this was a really important innovation of conservative donors and organizers. They realized that they could have influence in shaping the national agenda by moving across states in a coordinated fashion."

Among the major conservative contributors to the Freedom Foundation is the Charles Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, as well as the State Policy Network.

Florida's largest teachers' union a target

In Florida, the Freedom Foundation has set its sights on the state's largest teachers' union -- UTD -- which represents 30,000 school district employees. 

Freedom Foundation
Freedom Foundation CBS News Miami

In July, the Freedom Foundation held a national Teacher Summit at this resort near Denver, providing all-expense paid trips for several Miami Dade teachers to attend the conference where it pitched them on the idea of creating a group to take down UTD.

The Freedom Foundation is now financing and promoting that alternative organization, called the Miami Dade Education Coalition. In addition to producing the video touting the new group and paying for the mailers attacking UTD, the Freedom Foundation has also built the group's website and is funding all of their legal expenses.

Rusty Brown, the Southern Director for the Freedom Foundation, is running the campaign from Texas. In an interview with CBS News Miami, he said the Freedom Foundation has already invested several hundred thousand dollars in the campaign.

"I don't have that number in front of me," he said when asked for the specific amount. "I mean, it's obviously not small. I mean, you can do the math on what mailings cost; they're not cheap. But like I said, that's not something I'll shy away from. You know, this is a very going to be a very expensive campaign. Reaching out to 30,000 people is not cheap any way that you cut it."

Asked if the Freedom Foundation was prepared to spend millions of dollars to eliminate the current teacher's union, Brown responded: "Whatever it takes."

A 2022 Freedom Foundation report CBS News Miami was able to review, highlights the group's ultimate goal: depriving unions of dues so they can become less effective politically.

In the report, the CEO Aaron Withe, wrote "our campaign [nationally] has now cost government unions over $250 million."

Asked if the Freedom Foundation does, indeed, measure success by the amount of union dues unions are no longer able to collect, Brown said: "Yes, but it's a narrow view of the problem as a whole.

According to the report reviewed by CBS News Miami, by the end of 2024, the Freedom Foundation projects it will cost public sector unions another $83 million.

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Brown said.

And Florida is a key part of that strategy.

New option for teachers  

The Freedom Foundation has posted the promotional video for the Miami Dade Education Coalition on its YouTube page and is using the video as part of its fundraising campaign.

The headline on the video: "Miami-Dade teachers are attempting the largest public sector decertification in American history!"

One of the teacher's featured in that video was Shawn Beightol, who has been a teacher in Miami-Dade County for 30 years. 

A longtime critic of UTD, Beightol has run -- and lost -- to be president of UTD in the past. He was among the teachers who the Freedom Foundation flew to Denver for the teacher summit and is now the spokesperson for the newly formed Miami-Dade Education Coalition.

"We are going to be solely focused on working for the teachers and providing the best classroom conditions, the best local school conditions possible," Beightol said in the video. "We have a piece of paper that's called a contract that's really not worth much more than toilet paper."

It is not clear what he meant, the last teacher contract that was negotiated earlier this year, provided teacher raises between seven and 10 percent.

The contract was ratified by 91 percent of the district's employees.

The union also led the 2018 and 2022 campaign to raise the sales tax by a penny, which has provided millions of dollars for additional teacher raises.

"When Miami-Dade Education Coalition succeeds at replacing the United Teachers of Dade, you're going to see your dues drop," Beightol said in the video.

Teachers currently pay a little less than one thousand dollars a year in union dues, which is typical for teachers across the country. But since Florida has long been a Right To Work state, no teacher has ever been required to pay union dues, they are entirely voluntary - and even if a worker chooses not to pay, they still reap the benefits of the pay raises and other perks the union negotiates.

Beightol told CBS News Miami, he expects the dues for his group to be about $400 a year.

Beightol said the group would be able to cut the dues because they would immediately withdraw from groups including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, groups that conservatives have targeted for years by claiming they promote a radical agenda.

Cutting the funding for those national teacher unions is exactly what the Freedom Foundation is after.

"They've been a key foe of conservatives," said Hertel-Fernandez, the Columbia professor. "And that's why you've seen over decades this campaign to weaken public sector labor unions as a political strategy by pursuing all of these different measures, whether it's cutting back on their right to collectively bargain or on their right to be able to collect dues and fees from the workers that they represent."

Union officials argue the national groups help them gain funding for school districts and push legislation that benefits teachers, including a student loan forgiveness program.

Beightol said once they eliminate UTD, the new group would also withdraw from the Florida Education Association, which provides attorneys for union members who need representation in grievances. Beightol said they are looking at hiring other law firms to represent teachers.

Labor unions in the cross hairs   

The current attack on UTD is the latest in a decades-long effort by the right to weaken labor unions.

In 2018, a deeply divided Supreme court issued what is known as the Janus decision that weakened unions ability to collect dues. Rusty Brown acknowledges the Freedom Foundation was part of the consortium of conservative groups that pushed that case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Yes," he said. "Freedom Foundation was involved in the Janus case, and the Janus decision, yes."

That decision opened the door for Republican controlled legislatures across the country to target public sector unions. The Freedom Foundation has also used the Janus decision to attack public sector unions in the California, Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania.

In Florida, the Republican Legislature passed Senate Bill 256 earlier this year, which blocked local governments from deducting union dues from an employee's paycheck - even if the employee wanted the dues collected. Employees now have to mail in their union dues or create another mechanism to pay them.

It also raised the number of dues paying members that the union must have to remain in existence from 50 percent of the workforce to 60 percent.

In addition to the teacher's unions, the bill applies to the nurses union, as well as other government employees including transit workers.

The only unions exempted from the law were the unions representing police officers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters - all unions that endorsed Ron DeSantis in the last election.

(The keynote speaker for the Freedom Foundation Teacher Summit in Colorado, was DeSantis's education commissioner, Manny Diaz.)

Under the new law, if UTD is not able to show that by Dec. 15 at least 60 percent of their members are paying dues - even though it is now harder to pay those dues - then a state board appointed by Gov. DeSantis will step and begin the process of decertifying the union.

In a stunning admission, Rusty Brown claims that he - and the Freedom Foundation - wrote Senate Bill 256. During the Freedom Foundation conference in Colorado as well as in meetings with teachers in Miami-Dade, Brown reportedly bragged about writing the bill that they will now use to attack the union.

"Correct, yes," he said when asked if he wrote the bill. He said the bill was designed "to help employees in Florida hold their unions accountable."

Beightol acknowledges the Freedom Foundation may be using Miami-Dade teachers for their own political ends, but he said it is necessary for him to align with them because he has been unable to challenge UTD in the past.

"Do you remember World War II? You remember that we allied ourselves with the Soviet Union against Adolf Hitler," Beightol told CBS News Miami. "The concept is, you know, an enemy of my enemy is my friend for today. And right now, we have tried for decades to overthrow this ineffective, fraudulent organization known as United Teachers of Date. And we have not been able to do it." 

On Friday, October 20th, United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez Mats issued the following statement about the deliberate attacks on M-DCPS teachers and public-sector unions.

"The Freedom Foundation's crusade to dismantle labor organizations and strip teachers of their fundamental rights has made its way to our classroom doors. This orchestrated assault by a billionaire funded right wing fringe group is now threatening the economic security and rights of educators in Miami-Dade.

The tactics employed by The Freedom Foundation in Florida are consistent with their nationwide playbook: launch misinformation campaigns, create legal challenges, and spew divisive rhetoric. Their actions attack and attempt to dismantle the collaborative spirit that has historically defined the labor movement.

Fortunately, since the Freedom Foundation disinformation campaign began UTD, has grown from 52% to nearly 60% and a record setting 91% of educators approved our contract two months ago.

We stand united and determined to protect the rights of educators and the integrity of United Teachers of Dade. As education professionals and community members, we recognize the importance of safeguarding the collective voice that UTD provides, which has long been a champion of fair wages, safe working conditions, and collective bargaining.

We will work to ensure that the rights of the M-DCPS workforce are upheld and protected by ensuring employees join UTD."

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