Recently, AFSCME international issued a call to action to our AFSCME family to support members in Florida in response to the passage of the anti-worker Senate Bill (SB) 256, which went into effect on July 1, 2023. Council 66 answered the call immediately by sending members & staff to Miami, including Rich Canazzi, Demetris Graham, Amy Smardz and Maria Fisher.

SB 256 attacks hard working public service workers and their rights. In addition to requiring most public sector unions to maintain 60% dues payment rates, it requires anti-union language to be added to the union’s own membership cards and outlaws the right of employees to pay dues via payroll deduction. The bill makes exemptions for some in law enforcement, but excludes dedicated members who work side by side with law enforcement, such as police service aides and corrections technicians.

Payroll dues deduction is a long established, secure and effective practice between members, employers and their union that allows members to pay their union dues through their paychecks. By making payroll dues deduction illegal, SB 256 creates an extra burden for individual members and their union.

In this brief trip, we often rose early and worked late signing up members and assisting them with utilizing the AFSCME UPAY system – which allows members to pay dues through a secure system. It was a powerful experience and we learned a lot about our amazing brothers and sisters who tirelessly support Florida members and the challenges they are facing.

We met with the President of Local 199, Miami-Dade County, Seadoreaia “CeeCee” Brown. Local 199 is the largest bargaining unit in Miami Dade County representing over 300 job classifications. CeeCee learned about unions from her mom. She would hear her mom call her union rep when workplace issues arose.

In 2003, CeeCee decided to join in her mom’s footsteps and became a County employee in the department of animal services. Right away, CeeCee noticed there were significant workplace issues for employees in animal services. Their boss disregarded the union contract, “firing people left and right.” The union did not have a strong presence in the facility with no one addressing the large health and safety issues that arose including workers being exposed to rat and roach infestations. “They valued the dog lives in the shelter more than they valued ours.” For the first time, CeeCee demonstrated the relentless passion for worker advocacy that has continued to this day.

She organized her coworkers to walk out, stopping operations for the day. With CeeCee’s leadership they managed to accomplish a change in work conditions. When CeeCee started they were only a few  people signed up as union members. The day after the walkout, they achieved 100% union membership. CeeCee didn’t hold an official union role at that point, but that quickly changed. After local leadership saw what she could accomplish she became a union release rep and kept moving up in the union. In 2016, she became the President of Local 199.

Being a union leader isn’t for the faint of a heart. “On a good day I want to quit twice” CeeCee jokes. It can be a ‘thankless job that “consumes so much of your life”. If you care deeply you can’t help but take on people’s suffering and struggles”-CeeCee said. The weight of that can be heavy.

“The reward is being the voice for people who don’t have a voice. A lot of people want to take action, but they’re too afraid. They feel voiceless.” “Even in the toughest moments, I know that I’m improving the quality of life for those that need advocacy the most” Her favorite part is “putting bullies in their place.”

CeeCee talked about the recent passage of SB 256.The bill is “union busting at its finest.” It’s also “quality of life busting.” The bill’s provisions include banning union dues payroll deduction. This is how AFSCME Florida collects all of their dues. According to CeeCee, there have been issues with fraud in Florida and members are uncomfortable giving out banking information. In response, AFSCME instituted the UPAY system.

Working with CeeCee and so many other passionate AFSCME Florida leaders, helped us better understand the struggles and challenges of our sister union in Florida and lessons learned that we can bring to New York.

“It was a great experience being in the field and seeing the work from an organizational perspective,” says Amy, who coordinates Council 66 membership data. “This was a great reminder of how important it is to collect accurate membership information. It really shows what can happen when we don’t choose pro-worker candidates.” CeeCee echoes this sentiment. “Union folks are working class, middle class people who need to make cognizant decisions about who they vote for. We really need to get folks in power who care about working people. All of us need to pay more attention to candidates and not just vote based on political party.”

“New York could easily be Florida,” says Rich. “Workers need to take anti-worker forces seriously. This was forced on members and it required action beyond what local leadership could address.” This truth is perhaps where the richness of the unions is most exemplified. No one does it alone; not when you’re a union. Union brothers and sisters serve readily whenever they are called to do so. “To have an opportunity to help our AFSCME family in Florida was an honor. AFSCME is strength in numbers,” says Demetris.

CeeCee concludes that “We should never stop organizing, always be educating and be visible the minute members come into the union.”

To quote the late great labor leader Richard Trumka. “Today, we say that when you pick a fight with any of us, you pick a fight with all of us! And that when you push us, we will push back! There are 1.5 million AFSCME members who stand and fight in solidarity with AFSCME Florida and when you push one of us, we push back together!