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Union Details How SunRail Support Got Derailed

With 500,000 members in Florida and strong ties to House and Senate Democrats, one of the state’s largest labor unions Monday blasted the Republican-led Legislature’s plans for a “union-busting” special session on rail issues.

AFL-CIO President Mike Williams on Monday vowed to block attempts to approve the 61-mile commuter rail during a special session beginning Thursday. The union's central objection is rooted in its distrust of the Florida Department of Transportation -- unwilling to endorse the AFL-CIO's demand that SunRail legislation protect about 100 rail jobs in Central and South Florida, which could mushroom into several hundred additional slots in jeopardy once the commuter rail is running.

"We really see this as government-sanctioned union-busting at its best," Williams said.

Williams was particularly livid about a February construction conference held at the DOT offices which seems intended to offer contractors lessons in how to avoid hiring union workers -- including a workshop titled "Staying Union-Free in a Pro-Union World."

DOT’s stance has been reflected in SunRail negotiations, union officials say. While the state is seeking federal funding for SunRail, including a federal rail administration grant that would safeguard the union jobs at risk, the AFL-CIO has been asking Senate President Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Larry Cretul and Gov. Charlie Crist to include similar union protections in legislation expected to emerge this week.

The three leaders, however, have rejected the union's overtures to either specifically include workforce language in the legislation, or add a contingency provision that would make the SunRail project hinge on Florida receiving FRA cash that would maintain union work in Central Florida and also South Florida's TriRail commuter train.

The union huddled Nov. 3 through 5 with officials from the governor's office, along with representatives of Atwater and Cretul passing offers back-and-forth. But just before Thanksgiving, when the framework of a special session was outlined by Atwater and Cretul, negotiations broke down. That sparked Williams to announce his opposition to the session, reversing what loomed as first-time union support of a rail plan defeated in two earlier legislative sessions.

"We're not asking the state Legislature to create one union job," Williams insisted. Instead, union spokesman Rich Templin said, "We want the status quo, in terms of wanting rail work protections to remain in place."

The Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the News Service of Florida Monday afternoon. But a senator privy to the behind-the-scenes negotiations on the rail special session, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said he has had several “good discussions with labor,” and planned to meet with the union again this week.

However, Ring said that there may not be much state leaders can do to bring the union back on board with the special session that appears to be gathering steam.

“We’re kind of at an impasse as it relates to the Tallahassee legislation, so hopefully Washington can step up,” he said. “There’s not much of a path to appeasement through Tallahassee right now.”

But Ring said the union’s support could easily get back on track if the state ends up using federal dollars to purchase the 61 miles of existing tracks from CSX Corp. the SunRail due to federal union protections.

“I know we can’t get a guarantee of stimulus money, but maybe we can get some quiet assurances,” Ring said. “If this bill succeeds, all the unions are going to be working together to get that stimulus money.”

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