Charlie Crist says he’s willing to examine right-to-work

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Charlie Crist once got the students at his junior high school to stand up, literally. Forty-five years later he is asking working people to stand up and the public policy ramifications could be significant for workers in Florida and across the nation.

Crist thinks right-to-work laws are undemocratic if they prevent people from organizing effectively to address workplace issues.

“Unions have been very good for our country and very good for working people and the notion that we wouldn’t support what unions have tried to do to help unify people simply defies logic to me,” said Crist.

The comment came during  a discussion about working conditions in Florida prompted by a judge’s ruling that the state’s workman compensation system violates “fundamental rights.” Crist was traveling the state in a school bus on what his campaign called a “Restore the Cuts” bus ride to contrast his education record with that of Gov. Rick Scott. At news conferences in five cities over three days, Crist repeatedly drew a contrast between himself and Scott; saying on spending for public schools the distinction between the two was crystal clear.

Ideas surrounding jobs also offers a clear distinction in the governing philosophies of the two candidates.

When the ruling Republican Party talks about cutting regulations it usually is referring to freeing capital and businesses of rules in order to enhance the market forces. In this view, workers’ rights are a controllable expense if government cooperates. Right to work, favored by business and investors regulate the contract between unions and companies. It prohibits membership in a union which negotiates benefits on behalf of all workers as a condition for employment. Labor says it pits worker against worker.

Twenty-four states have a prohibition on union shops. It is a provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which President Harry S. Truman had called a “slave labor bill.” Experts say, right-to-work legislation weakens labor unions and depresses wages and workers’ rights. Floridians earn $5,680 less per year than workers in non-right to work states.

Crist’s bus ride took him along the I-4 corridor where workers’ attempts to place a mandatory sick leave initiative on a county ballot was circumvented by Republican legislators and what a judge called an illegal maneuver by the Orange County Commission. When asked to clarify a comment he made about working people need to know someone in government has their back Crist repeated his willingness to have a discussion about the right to work statute.

“I think it is something we need to look into. Why we aren’t doing more to help working people in Florida defies logic,” said Crist.

When shown a transcript of Crist’s remarks, the AFL-CIO’s legislative and political director, Rich Templin, said no Florida governor or candidate had said anything similar about labor and worker’s rights in “25 years.”

Templin said “it is significant” anytime a statewide candidate is willing to discuss right to work but that there are couple of nuances in Florida that Crist may not fully appreciate. One, the constitutional provision also guarantees public sector workers the right to organize, something labor is reluctant to jeopardize.

“Because the so-called Right to Work law is in our constitution, it must be looked at in a very deliberative manner but we are encouraged that Charlie Crist is willing to show real leadership and have this conversation,” said Templin. “We hope other policy makers will also look at the facts, not the false talking points and be a part of the conversation.”

It is a  kind of conversation that a Florida governor gets once a generation.  Whoever is elected governor in November will get to pick 15 members and the chairman of a  Constitutional Revision Commission  which will begin meeting in 2017.  Once every 20 years the group is charged with recommending changes to the state constitution which then goes before voters.

“I applaud Governor Crist’s willingness to examine right to work legislation in Florida,” said incoming House Democrat Leader Mark Pafford, D-Palm Beach. “I believe that the improved quality of life in the middle class would benefit and it is worth the very political heavy lift. Our workforce is Florida’s economic engine, we must do more.”

If addressing a public policy which both the left and right agrees weaken unions and depress wages is a conversation labor wants to have then Charlie Crist is appearing to say, stand up, again.