TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The Florida Police Benevolent Association, “divorced” by the state’s prison workers as their union five years ago, is staging a comeback.READ MORE: Coral Springs Police: 3 Separate Crime Scenes Tied To One Suspect
The organization, which served as the collective-bargaining representative for corrections and probation officers in Florida for three decades before being ousted by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 2011, has started gathering petitions in an attempt to recapture the job, PBA Executive Director Matt Puckett confirmed this week.
The PBA needs about 5,000 signatures — or 30 percent of the 17,000 workers — to force an election, a process that could take several months, according to Puckett.
“Over the last two years, we’ve just been hearing from a lot of former members and corrections officers in general, are you guys ever going to try to make a comeback?” Puckett said in an interview. “I think the requests had gotten to the point where we couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
A recent survey of correctional officers “came back really positive,” Puckett said.
“They want to see us come back. They’d at least like to see a campaign. So we’re moving forward with that. We’re in the early stages, but we’re moving forward,” he said.
The PBA’s move comes as the Department of Corrections has struggled to cope with reports of inmate deaths and brutality by prison guards, allegations of cover-ups and corruption, and low morale and high turnover among workers. Since her appointment more than a year ago, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones — the fifth agency chief in six years — has continued the housecleaning crusade launched by her predecessor, Michael Crews.
“Secretary after secretary has come in. They’ve had good plans. Some things have happened that are maybe outside of their control. They need a partner in labor, too, to be standing up and doing the same thing, and I don’t feel like the Teamsters are doing that,” Puckett said. “The people that aren’t out there doing the kind of things that are in these headlines are being forgotten about. And the agency is being kind of dragged down by that. The labor organizations should be stepping up and doing what they can to help right the ship.”
One of corrections workers’ chief complaints, however, involves salaries. Corrections and probation workers have gone without across-the-board pay raises for more than six years, and lawmakers again declined to include pay hikes in next year’s budget.
“They have not received the type of support from their bargaining representative like they should have,” Puckett said.
The pay-raise issue played a major role in the November 2011 election, when the Teamsters captured 55 percent of nearly 8,000 votes cast in the November 2011 election and ousted the PBA after 30 years. At the time, the Teamsters — which represents about 1.4 million workers nationwide — said that corrections workers wanted a more vocal brand of union.
“I’m sure the PBA’s going to hit on (the pay raises) aspect. But that’s not why we came in here. We came in here, that is part of the reason, but we also came in here for representation for the guys in all sorts of cases,” Les Cantrell, statewide coordinator for the Teamsters Local 2011, said in a telephone interview.READ MORE: Brightline Celebrates 3 Years Of Service As It Nears Orlando Extension Completion
For example, the Teamsters have taken all corrections officers’ dismissal cases to arbitration rather than to the Public Employees Relations Commission, a process preferred by the PBA, Cantrell said.
“In arbitration, the guys have a better chance,” he said, adding that the Teamsters have had an excess of 1,500 “touches” — cases where they’ve represented corrections or probation workers in Florida — over the past five years.
“So, we’re very responsive when it comes to the membership, when it comes to representing them at all levels in DOC,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said the Teamsters have also included union members in negotiations with the state.
“We don’t just send our staff in to negotiate by email,” he said.
And, Cantrell said, the Teamsters have won other perks, including special compensation for workers.
Under a previous “use it or lose it” agreement with the state, corrections officers who worked holidays had to forfeit the time they earned for working those days if they did not take days off within a certain period of time. Under the new agreement, employees get paid for working holidays.
“We now have the only contract in the state that if an officer cannot use special comp, they get paid for it,” Cantrell said. “There’s still a lot more work to be done. But we’ve made some parts of the contract better, and we’re happy about that.”
The Teamsters are preparing to file an unfair labor practices complaint against the Department of Corrections, challenging the agency’s ability to fire corrections and probations workers without reason for up to a year after they have been promoted. The complaint could be filed as early as Monday, Cantrell said.
The Teamsters and the state are at an impasse in negotiations over a new contract, which expires on June 30. The state had included the promotions policy in its proposed contract.
“This discourages officers from applying for a promotion — thinking that if they are promoted, they are at risk of losing their entire careers for up to one year without any reason,” Teamsters International Vice President Ken Wood said in a press release.MORE NEWS: Ronald Acuña's 1st Game In Miami Since Knee Injury, Leads Braves Past Marlins 5-3
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.