Kansas Republicans accused organized labor activists Thursday of forcing female legislators to endure sexually explicit and degrading comments while passing into the House chamber before a vote to end automatic deductions from paychecks for union political causes.
Democrats and a representative of the Kansas AFL-CIO disputed the GOP claims, and both sides pointed to video evidence to support their interpretation of events.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said the vocal crowd crossed the line by engaging in salty commentary outside of the House chamber and by shouting inside the chamber when the paycheck bill came to a vote.
“There were comments of sexually explicit nature directed at both female legislators and female staff,” O’Neal said. “That’s the most disrespectful display from the gallery I’ve seen in 27 years I’ve been here.”
He said two union sympathizers attempted to intimidate a male House member into voting against the measure, which was passed 75-46 and forwarded to the Senate.
As word spread of tension on the third floor of the Statehouse, House members were instructed to enter the chamber by a back staircase. No one was injured, and there were no arrests.
Bruce Tunnell, executive vice president of Kansas AFL-CIO, said allegations that union members did anything other than express a First Amendment right of free speech were false.
“We’ve got nine minutes of video that shows we were absolutely not disrespectful to any female Republican legislator,” Tunnell said.
He said opponents of the bill took up positions in the House gallery and shouted “freedom of speech” and “vote no” when O’Neal called for the final vote on House Bill 2130.
House security ordered everyone out of the gallery to restore order with assistance from the Kansas Highway Patrol and Capitol Police.
Tunnell said reaction to their presence ran counter to the ideals of freedom. The attitude of GOP leaders in Kansas mirrored union supporters’ criticism of efforts by Republicans to undermine labor activities in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states.
The bill approved by the House would eliminate the option of union members to voluntarily have money automatically removed from their paychecks for use by union political action committees. The legislation doesn’t inhibit private contributions by union members.
“They’re telling our members what they can and can’t do with their paychecks,” Tunnell said.
The Kansas Republican Party fired off a news release blasting “union thugs” who “brought their street tactics to the Kansas House” where they offered a “taste of the bullying tactics being employed by unions across the country.”
“This conduct has no place in Kansas, especially not in our Capitol,” said Amanda Adkins, chairwoman of the state GOP. “Unfortunately, this only provides a glimpse into the ‘negotiation’ style preferred by these agitators.”
Adkins called on the Kansas Democratic Party to condemn the “threats and sexually degrading comments.”
Kenny Johnston, executive director of the state Democratic Party, responded by scheduling a rally for noon Saturday on the south steps of the Statehouse. Kansas Democrats will be in town for annual Washington Days events.
He said the voice of opposition and dissent wouldn’t be silenced in Kansas.
“The actions being taken by reckless Republicans in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and now Kansas have the same sinister intent — drowning out the voices of working families and everyday Kansans while giving more influence to corporate special interests,” he said.
Republican House members supportive of the bill touted it as liberating to union members who secretly didn’t want to contribute financially to a labor PAC, while House Democrats opposed to the measure interpreted it as a kick in the gut for union workers.
“This is punitive and petty,” said Rep. Mike Slattery, a Mission Democrat.
Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, said he felt pressured to contribute to political causes while in a union.
“As a card-carrying union member for over 20 years, I have personally experienced giving to the union only to find my money supporting candidates with whom I do not agree,” he said.
O’Neal said seven other states had passed similar legislation to put an end to “forced and coerced political contributions.”