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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Social Media and Saving Florida

From Sunshine State

by Kenric Ward

Inspired by large protests in Wisconsin, government workers are setting the social-media network aflame with plans for public demonstrations in Florida on March 8.

"Category 5 starting in Miami-Dade County and it will not stop!" Mike Medina, a member of the Miami police union, wrote on Facebook.

"March 8 Tallahassee -- greet the governor and legislators on opening day to let them know that you will not stand for changing our laws in favor of special interests," urged Paula House Eisenhart in another posting.

Teachers, government workers and a host of progressive-labor organizations are rallying under the banner of "Awake the State" in response to Gov. Rick Scott's proposed $5 billion in budget cuts and in advance of the Legislature convening next month.

State Rep. Mark Pafford, who posted on the "Awake the State" Facebook and Twitter pages, declared:

"This governor and the legislative majority want to use worker against worker to reduce their corporate labor costs. Now is the time for action -- as a member of Florida's Legislature, I need your help. I need to know the People are angry and are ready to make a very clear statement. We need to work together, now."

Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, advises users of the Facebook site to "make sure you change your profile picture to get more people aware of 'Awake The State' ... this page is the modern vehicle to ensure we maintain our constitutional right to gather -- and make change."

"Awake the State" is serving as a rallying site for Florida teachers, who are particularly concerned about the school budget.

A group called "Fund Education Now" announced it had collected 5,000 signatures against what it called "budget cuts."

The Scott administration responds that state funding for K-12 education remains intact, but that the expiration of federal stimulus dollars in June will lead to an overall reduction in funds.

Meantime, county affiliates of the Florida Education Association are calling on teachers to e-mail and phone their local state legislators to oppose proposed reforms to the state retirement system.

A Senate committee is scheduled on Tuesday to hear Senate Bills 1128 and 1139, which would require public-sector workers, including teachers, to contribute to their pension funds and extend the retirement age.

To turn up the heat on the Legislature, "Awake the State" is pushing for a series of demonstrations on March 8, the opening day of the 2011 session. A la Madison, a major worker protest is being organized at the Capitol.

Organizers reportedly are aiming to bring 8,000 demonstrators to Tallahassee on March 8. Other groups that cannot make it to the capital that day are planning to hold rallies in their local communities.

Announced one Facebook posting: "March 8th in Florida, pick up a sign, stand tall for teachers, police, firefighters."

Mary Ryals, an associate instructor of business communication at Florida State University, said, "You bet I'll participate in the 'Awake the State' rally in Tallahassee on March 8."

Ryals said that Florida's public-sector workers, like those in Wisconsin, are anxious about changes to their pension and health-care programs.

Additionally, teachers expressed alarm over reports of a legislative proposal to discontinue automatic dues-withholding from instructors' paychecks. They fear that move could be the leading edge of a broader assault on collective-bargaining rights.

The Florida Education Association did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.

Rep. Pafford related that the "Awake the State" page on Facebook garnered more than 2,000 "likes" from readers in its four days online. "It's a great vehicle for people to get on the same page and organize," he said, noting that some 60,000 people logged on amid the heated controversy of the SB 6 teacher-tenure bill last session.

The second-term lawmaker said social-media networks facilitate activism and grass-roots organization across the sprawling state when Tallahassee "gets sideways" on issues. That organizing potential isn't lost on public-sector unions, which are brainstorming in advance of the Legislature's opening day on March 8.

Nearly 100 self-proclaimed Florida progressives gathered in Orlando on Sunday to strategize on ways to combat the Republican reform agenda at the 2011 Legislature. One of the "LegiCamp" sessions was a tutorial on using Twitter for political organization.

Pafford speculated that much of the activity on March 8 will be local, perhaps in deference to the fact that it's a workday and, for most students, a school day.

Any widespread absence by government workers and teachers has the potential to stir a backlash among the very public they hope to court. Indeed, raucous demonstrations by public-sector unions could well boomerang among taxpayers who feel that government spending is out of control.

"The unions are fine with redistribution of wealth as long as it is coming out of our pockets and going into theirs," said Punta Gorda tea party leader Robin Stublen, who testified last week in favor of pension-reform legislation.

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