House speaker and union leaders trade allegations over Thursday protest

TOPEKA — House Speaker Mike O’Neal said today that he’s reviewing video of a Thursday protest at the House chamber and may take action against lobbyists who were involved.

In a news conference, O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, claimed that union members harassed and swore at legislators and staff during the demonstration.

Union officials said O’Neal’s assertions of profanity are untrue and while they were noisy, they didn’t harass or intimidate anybody.

Union demonstrators gathered outside the House chamber Thursday morning to protest House Bill 2130 when it came up for a final vote. The bill would eliminate a paycheck checkoff that allows workers to voluntarily have donations to their union’s political action committee deducted from their wages.

The demonstration was smaller than, but inspired by, ongoing protests in Wisconsin. There, thousands of union members and supporters have besieged the Capitol for nearly two weeks in protest of a Republican plan to reduce benefits and gut collective-bargaining rights of public employees.

The Kansas demonstrators say HB 2130 is designed to make it harder for unions to raise money to counterbalance corporate political contributions. In Kansas, most corporate funding goes to Republicans who dominate state government, while unions are more supportive of Democrats.

The bill’s supporters say it assures that individual union workers’ money won’t be used to support political views with which they may disagree.

O’Neal said the union demonstrators made sexually charged comments and intimidated House members as they passed through the entryway to the chamber.

O’Neal said that he is reviewing video of the incident and continues to question witnesses to the protest.

Shouts from the gallery by some of the demonstrators prompted security to remove the 50-60 union members in attendance.

In the entryway, protesters loudly applauded opponents of HB 2130 and shouted “Vote No! Vote No!” at its supporters. They restarted that chant from the viewing gallery when the bill came up for the vote, which led to their ejection.

“It was orchestrated. This wasn’t, in my opinion, a spontaneous show of emotion (in the gallery),” O’Neal said, referring to a comment by one lobbyist reported in The Wichita Eagle.

Bruce Tunnell, Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, told demonstrators just before they entered the balcony Thursday “Keep quiet, but when 2130 comes up, do whatever you want.”

O’Neal, a 27-year veteran of the legislature, responded to the disruption from the podium by saying “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more dismal display of disrespect for the House.”

Tunnell said that some union protesters were not aware of the rules governing the gallery and made excessive noise. He said everyone left of their own accord when told they were breaking the rules and there were no incidents with security officials.

They watched the vote — and continued to shout approval and disapproval of lawmakers’ comments — on a monitor in the hallway outside the chamber. The bill passed 75-46 and will now move to the Senate for consideration.

After the vote, the union members marched out, shouting “Who are we? Union!” and briefly singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

O’Neal claimed that some registered lobbyists removed their official badges before entering the gallery, a violation of the Legislature’s rules.

He said he is reviewing information to determine if further action will be taken in regards to the participation of lobbyists in the demonstration.

Tunnell said it never happened.

“I don’t know of any lobbyists who took their badges off. Why would they do that?” he said.

He countered that some representatives removed their badges when they entered the area of the protest, to avoid being identified as members of the House.

O’Neal said violating rules of House decorum could result in some form of discipline, including the removal of privileges of any lobbyists involved.

“There are things we can do in terms of banning certain individuals from certain offices, like leadership offices, or the gallery,” O’Neal said.

The hallway leading into the House gallery on the third floor of the capitol, on the other hand, is a public area free for congregations and demonstrations, as long as they are conducted appropriately, he said.

In regards to the accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation, O’Neal chose not to name individuals who he said were the targets of abuse while passing the “gantlet” of protesters, out of respect for their privacy.

O’Neal said one member of the House reported being surrounded by protesters, causing him to feel threatened “both by the physical presence and the inflection of the voice and the statement that ‘You will vote a certain way.’”

“I can tell you that I have now verified from at least six individuals the use of profanity,” O’Neal said. “And beyond the sexually explicit things, the intimidation, the telling individuals ‘You will vote a certain way’ is very close to crossing the line.”

Tunnell denied that any such harassment occurred.

“O’Neal’s comments are absolutely not true,” Tunnell said. “He’s come forward with nothing, no names, no witnesses, to show anything happened.”

Three female union members who attended Thursday’s protest denied that any inappropriate comments or threats took place.

“I was surprised when I read it in the paper because I never heard any kind of slur or derogatory statements made to any of the representatives, whether they were a man or woman,” said Judy Pierce of Wichita, who serves as Secretary Treasurer for the Machinists Union, District 70.

“I think they ought to show us proof,” said Pierce. “If they’re making those kinds of allegations, I don’t believe they should have been out unless they had proof of it.”

Pierce was one of the many union members from Wichita who were on hand to express their disapproval of the bill. She said representatives from Boeing, Hawker Beechcraft, Cessna, Bombardier and Johnson Controls attended the demonstration.

O’Neal said he has no plans to report his findings to the police. He said he is focused on “how we manage who has access to the House” and to end the volley of accusations and denials that has resulted.

O’Neal noted that while he’d been notified that union demonstrators would be in the building, he said he was not warned ahead of time that protesters would act as they did.

“It almost made the point for the proponents of the legislation. It probably got a few more votes for the legislation than it might otherwise have gotten,” O’Neal said.

As the meeting of the House closed Thursday evening, O’Neal praised the Sergeant at Arms and House security for handling the disturbance, drawing an ovation from members.

– Todd Fertig, Eagle Topeka Bureau