Mourning and Organizing in Florida

An update from ground zero of the culture wars.
By Mike Budd

This article is part of a series, "Dispatches from States under Legislative Attack."

Don’t mourn—organize!
—Joe Hill, union organizer, executed 1915

There is much to mourn in Florida right now, especially in our colleges and universities. As the AAUP’s Special Committee on Academic Freedom in Florida observed in its May 2023 preliminary report, “academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history. If sustained, this onslaught threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.”

The special committee’s preliminary report outlined four main findings: Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the state legislature “are using their swift, aggressive, and ongoing ‘hostile takeover’ of New College of Florida as a test case for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country.” Administrators from top to bottom are often deeply complicit in these political attacks or have “explicitly supported them” and risk becoming “pawns in DeSantis’s corrupt patronage system.” New Florida laws, “taken collectively, constitute a systematic effort to dictate and enforce conformity with a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda”—including through attempts “to destroy college and university programs that serve minority communities and to banish from classrooms ideas and information about race, gender, and sexual identity that fail to conform to the prejudices of politicians.” Finally, “the resulting self-censorship and fear are damaging the quality of public higher education in the state and are now spilling over into private institutions in Florida.”

Beyond higher education, Florida Republicans have passed a universal school voucher bill that will undermine public education; banned abortions after six weeks, before most women even know they are pregnant; banned gender-affirming care for minors; enabled adults to carry concealed weapons without a permit; authorized the spending of millions of dollars to punish immigrants, including by flying them from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard; punished businesses that allow minors into drag shows; punished people who use public bathrooms that do not correspond to their sex at birth; lowered the threshold for the death penalty; started an unpopular feud with Disney, Florida’s largest tourist attraction; shielded the governor’s travel records from public scrutiny; and pressured the College Board into cutting key material from the new Advanced Placement African American studies course.

For many of the targets of the right-wing hate offensive in Florida, the last few years have been exhausting and demoralizing. Near the top of the list of those targeted have been college professors (and, more generally, educators and our unions), since we not only disseminate new knowledge but also produce it, partly in response to larger social and economic changes. Faculty members in STEM fields can be included as targets of right-wing attacks, but those in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and related fields usually bear the brunt of the attacks, since our nontechnical disciplines are often sources of new public understandings of the changing social hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and class and thus more directly undermine entrenched conservative power. (For a contemporary example of how current public understandings of gender and sexuality are influenced by research and teaching in higher education, see Greta Gerwig’s 2023 film Barbie, which has been widely attacked by conservatives.)

In this climate, many faculty members are leaving or choosing not to come to Florida. We don’t yet know how many, and may never know exactly, since the now-Orwellian Florida state government denies that there’s a brain drain. But many of us have colleagues who are looking for work elsewhere, have already left or retired, or have recently been on a search committee that failed because so many qualified faculty members don’t want to come here. As the Guardian recently reported, “Andrew Gothard, the state-level president of the United Faculty of Florida labor union, predicts a loss of between 20 and 30% of faculty members at some universities during the upcoming academic year in comparison with 2022–23, which would signify a marked increase in annual turnover rates that traditionally have stood at 10% or less.”

Whether we are leaving or staying, intimidated or not, this is what we mourn: the human damage that the statistics can’t really capture. We are learning how fragile our academic institutions are. Many of us have devoted decades of our lives not just to our own careers but also to our institutions, working hard to make our underfunded public colleges and universities better able to serve all our students, including the many disadvantaged and underprepared ones. Our courses, our programs, and our colleges work only because we do; we are the mortar that holds those bricks together, not the administrators and the trustees and the donors who sit out in front at commencement. And the faculty members who keep the colleges and universities running increasingly experience precarious working conditions that are also our students’ increasingly precarious learning conditions. After half a century of neoliberal austerity in Florida and nationally, more than two-thirds of faculty appointments are now contingent. Parents and students paying for the rising costs of college have little idea that the professor in front of the class may earn less than $25,000 a year, lack basic job security (and thus academic freedom), and be living in a car. “Running a university like a business” and other failed neoliberal practices have helped create the conditions for the incipient fascist attacks on tenure, academic freedom, and vulnerable faculty and students in Florida and elsewhere. We find ourselves alone as faculty members, represented only through our union. We face powerful, malicious politicians and their sponsors, right-wing oligarchs. The attacks are intimidating and demoralizing, and those of us who are staying in Florida do not blame those who are leaving. Humane institutions are hard to build but easier to tear down.

But faculty members are fighting back. The United Faculty of Florida (UFF) represents more than twenty-five thousand full-time faculty members and eight thousand graduate assistants at all twelve state universities and sixteen state colleges. Since its beginnings in the late sixties and early seventies, UFF has grown in spite of the challenges of organizing in a right-to-work (for less) state and an often-hostile political climate. We have learned never to let a crisis go to waste and used several recent crises to shift from a defensive organizational posture centered on bargaining and contract enforcement to a more balanced and effective approach focused on organizing and membership growth. Along with our large K–12 affiliate, the Florida Education Association, and most other public-sector unions, we are now facing our greatest crisis: a punitive new antiunion law, Senate Bill 256, that necessitates both rapidly transferring all members from payroll deduction to electronic dues and maintaining a minimum membership density of 60 percent in all chapters to avoid decertification. With help from our national affiliates, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, UFF will continue to be fully mobilized until we are not just surviving but thriving again. And some faculty members, unintimidated, are finding solidarity in moving to or staying in Florida to join UFF and its allies in organizing a multiracial movement to fight the state’s incipient fascism, in higher education and elsewhere. As Zachary Levenson, a new assistant professor at Florida International University in Miami, put it,

Ultimately, it’s the union that allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, it is currently under attack, but I am confident that we can organize sufficiently to weather the storm of SB 256 in order to fight back against DeSantis’s war on public education. . . . I would much rather fight these policies on the frontlines of the struggle here in Florida than hide out until they make their way to wherever I happen to be teaching, already well entrenched. So yes, I’m scared. But I feel much better mobilizing against the onslaught now than waiting until it’s too late.

These battles have been going on in Florida for a long time. In Emancipation Betrayed, an eye-opening book on African American organizing in Florida from the end of slavery to 1920, University of Florida history professor Paul Ortiz shows how, contrary to previous claims that African Americans made little progress in civil rights during this period, “black Floridians formed mutual aid organizations—secret societies, women’s clubs, labor unions, and churches—to bolster dignity and survival in the harsh climate of Florida, which had the highest lynching rate of any state in the union. African Americans called on these institutions to build a statewide movement to regain the right to vote after World War I.”

Ortiz, as president of the University of Florida chapter of UFF, demonstrates in a recent interview with Truthout the organic links between rigorous scholarship and political advocacy using his own work. He discusses how organizers in the teachers’ unions developed an organic relationship with the civil rights and other progressive movements to help bring Florida into the modern era. Others have pointed out that the year 1968 was marked by both a union-led statewide teachers’ strike and the ratification of a new state constitution. This new constitution included the so-called right-to-work provision that had existed as state law since the 1940s but also added an unusual guarantee of workers’ rights to collective bargaining, which helped to make fast-growing Florida somewhat different from the most reactionary states of the old Confederacy. Ortiz says that such ties have continued into the present in movements for social justice in Florida. In February 2023, the Dream Defenders—one of the most important organizations coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement—called a statewide student walkout to protest DeSantis’s attacks on African American studies. “The United Faculty of Florida immediately endorsed this action,” Ortiz notes, and this call led to walkouts, teach-ins, and marches all over the state, strengthening old alliances and forming new ones. Progressive forces are gradually organizing into stronger coalitions of political and cultural resistance inside Florida.

At the same time, UFF is building affiliations outside Florida, including with the AAUP, since both organizations are now affiliated with the national American Federation of Teachers. In addition, UFF has joined Higher Education Labor United, a new and growing national organization of higher education unions that aims to build “a higher ed labor movement wall to wall and coast to coast,” complementing the strengths of our different union affiliates with an industrial approach to the distinctive problems and issues of the higher education sector.

We all have reasons to mourn, but mourning can contribute to apathy and disorganization. We need to heed the words of labor activist Joe Hill and move on to organizing.

Mike Budd is professor emeritus of film and media studies at Florida Atlantic University and is active in the United Faculty of Florida and Higher Education Labor United. His email address is [email protected]. An earlier version of this article appeared on Academe Blog.