Ron DeSantis Prefers to Call His War on Workers a War on “Wokeness”

Ron DeSantis’s crusade against “woke ideology” was always a thinly disguised assault on the rights of Florida teachers and their unions. His recent “Teacher’s Bill of Rights” only makes it explicit.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis seen during a press conference in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, on January 18, 2023. (Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Say you’re a politician angling for the White House while trying to pursue what would be a deeply unpopular campaign against teachers and unions. How do you do it without losing the ability to posture as pro-worker? Or without alienating the disaffected independents and even liberal-leaning voters who you’ll eventually want to peel off?

For a possible answer, look at Ron DeSantis’s tenure as governor of Florida. DeSantis has mopped up national attention for his increasingly aggressive war on the vague concept of “woke ideology,” a vagueness that’s provided a divisive but effective cover for his actual agenda of attacking and weakening teachers and their unions. DeSantis’s “anti-woke” legislation has often ended up not so much curtailing wokeness (which even his office can’t seem to define), as much as it has undermined the basic workplace and constitutional rights of teachers — say, by denying their most basic right of self-expression under threat of firing, or muzzling their teaching, which one Florida judge already flatly ruled violated the First Amendment.

Sure, this often bigoted agenda isn’t particularly popular either. But it’s not quite as politically toxic as picking a fight with a group of workers who polling shows most Americans like and believe deserve better pay, including in Florida.

Now DeSantis is taking this campaign to the next level, more explicitly targeting teachers’ unions with his misleadingly named Teacher’s Bill of Rights, in what DeSantis’s office paints as legislation to “protect teachers from overreaching school unions,” and what Fox News frames as an assault on “union bosses” — a favorite term for corporate “populists” who want to weaken worker power without looking like obvious hypocrites.

DeSantis has put forward a slate of measures under the rubric of “paycheck protection” that are meant to make life much harder for unions in the already anti-union state: mandated reminders that teachers don’t have to join a union and how much it costs if they do, no handing out union literature at work, and no automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks, to name a few. That last one is particularly menacing in a state where, as of 2018, unions get officially disqualified from collective bargaining if less than 50 percent of their members don’t pay dues.

DeSantis would also bump up the requirement for unions to represent at least 50 percent of eligible employees to 60 percent, a provision that seems clearly motivated by the fact that the United Teachers of Dade — whose president was his recent opponent’s running mate — has a 50.7 percent representation rate. More menacingly, the outline also proposes annual audits for unions, and allows state investigations into them over not just allegations of fraud, but the much broader and more easily politically massaged causes of “waste and abuse.”

The “paycheck protection” framing is there to shield DeSantis in case anyone accuses him of being anti-worker: I’m not against teachers — I’m making sure those rapacious union bosses don’t steal their wages! So is the other big-ticket item in the announcement, a $200 million budget boost to raise teacher salaries in a state that last year ranked third-to-last in the country in average public school teacher pay, and had actually dropped in the rankings under DeSantis.

But this bare minimum bit of ass-covering can’t mask the fact that what DeSantis is doing here is a naked assault on workers. It’s through unions — not the generosity of Ivy League-educated elites like DeSantis — that Florida’s embattled educators have been able to secure various gains for both workers and students over the years, from long-overdue funding increases and paid family leave, to a fifteen dollar minimum wage for non-teacher staff and DeSantis’s own boost to teacher salaries early last year.

It’s also unions that succeeded in forcing then-Republican governor Charlie Crist to veto a 2011 bill eliminating teacher tenure, one unfortunately signed into law by the Republican who came after. And it’s unions that fought to the bitter end a push to overhaul teachers’ pensions for the worse, a sign of how, even when on the back foot, teachers’ unions are one of the few institutions in the state capable of challenging its anti-worker political establishment.

This is why corporate-funded politicians like DeSantis have an ideological commitment to weakening unions, given the fact that their financiers view unions as one of the chief threats to their power and wealth. But there are also practical, political reasons that DeSantis himself specifically sees these attacks on teachers’ unions as a priority.

With Florida’s Democrats in a shambles, its teachers’ unions are one of the only remaining institutions that can mount a political challenge to someone like DeSantis, and in a state that has successfully cut the legs out from under workers’ ability to unionize no less. As the right-wing Manhattan Institute has griped, “despite the fact that Florida’s teachers’ unions operate at a comparative disadvantage” to those in some liberal states, “they appear to more than overcome the dual headwinds of on-cycle elections and a more conservative-friendly electorate,” with union-backed candidates hitting at least a 60 percent win-rate in all but one election before 2022. In fact, unions’ ability to win school board elections may well have motivated the provisions in DeSantis’s “Teacher’s Bill of Rights” shortening school board term limits by four years.

DeSantis is clearly a canny politician, but there’s no guarantee his latest salvo against teachers and their unions will work at a time when both unions and teachers are enjoying historic favorability. Wherever the chips fall, no one should talk about DeSantis’s efforts in the state as if they’re part of some war against wokeness. This is an anti-worker crusade, pure and simple.