Topeka House Speaker Mike O’Neal on Friday accused union members of making threats and sexually explicit comments, while union leaders denied the allegations and demanded that O’Neal show evidence to back up his charges.
In a news conference, O’Neal said he would investigate video from Thursday’s demonstration by several dozen union members, and was considering banning union lobbyists who participated from the House gallery or other areas of the Capitol.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said he didn’t think O’Neal could do that.
“This is not the speaker’s building. This is the people’s building,” Davis said.
Jane Carter, executive director of the Kansas Organization for State Employees, said it would be “a sad day” if unions weren’t allowed to lobby and represent themselves in the Capitol.
On Thursday, more than 50 union members were kicked out of the House gallery as they shouted “vote no” on a bill that workers said will restrict their ability to participate in political campaigns.
O’Neal said the union members tried to bully legislators during their stay at the Capitol.
“These tactics included verbal threats and sexually explicit comments to female legislators and staff," O’Neal said in a written statement entered into the House Journal.
Union leaders said O’Neal's allegations were untrue.
Prior to being escorted by state troopers out of the House gallery, union members had posted themselves outside the House chamber to urge legislators as they walked by to vote against the bill.
At a news conference Friday, Carter, Judy Pierce, with the Machinists Union from Wichita, and Pat Kirkman, who recently retired from the Teamsters, said they were in three separate locations with union members outside the House chamber, and they heard no one making obscene remarks to female legislators or staff. And they said they heard no one getting verbally aggressive with other legislators.
“I certainly didn’t hear anything that would have been inappropriate,” Kirkman said. “I heard a lot of them asking legislators to vote no. Some of the men were saying please, which surprised me.”
Pierce said union members would not have stood for anyone making derogatory comments. Pierce said there were many law officers in the crowd and they would have made an arrest if someone got out of hand. There were no arrests.
The three union members, Davis and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said O’Neal should show evidence that someone was subjected to sexually explicit comments or apologize for his accusations.
O’Neal said he had verified from at least six people the use of profanity on the part of demonstrators. He said he would not reveal the names of those who said they were harassed out of respect for their rights of privacy. He said there was also a male legislator who said he felt threatened when he was surrounded by several union members.
The dispute is over House Bill 2130, which would ban unions from making paycheck deductions for political activities and prohibit public employee unions from endorsing candidates. It was approved 75-46, with only Republican support, and now goes to the Senate for consideration.
The measure was backed by the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity and Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The billionaire Koch brothers who run Wichita-headquartered Koch Industries and contribute to many conservative causes are prominent figures in both groups.
When the union members shouted during the final vote, O’Neal called it the most disrespectful display he had seen in the House in his 27 years as a legislator. The Kansas Republican Party issued a statement that “union thugs brought their street tactics to the Kansas House Chamber.”
Davis and Hensley said they didn’t condone the shouting by union members in the House gallery but understood the workers’ frustration.
“People act out when they are frustrated, angry or both. When you take the rights of people away from them, people get angry,” Hensley said.