Capitol police arrested seven protesters from a state Senate committee meeting room Tuesday for disrupting hearings about legislation curtailing unions.
Authorities said they charged each of the seven who were removed from the committee room with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Witnesses said they believed that the protesters were affiliated with the groups Chattanooga Organized for Action and Progressive Student Alliance. The demonstrators included students from the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis.
"The legislation to outlaw collective bargaining is nothing short than an attack on the right of workers to organize in the workplace and take collective action to better their working conditions," Chris Brooks, lead organizer of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said in a release. "To use the current economic crisis and state deficit as a cover to attack teachers, police officers, firefighters and all other public sectors workers is absolutely absurd. Organizing is a fundamental human right."
At first Capitol police asked the protesters to leave. But when they would not comply some were forcibily removed after having attempted to link arms and remain in the room. One witness said they "played dead," not offering resistance to law enforcement but still forcing them to have to be carried out.
Only a few were removed in this manner, and the other protesters eventually complied.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey condemned the demonstration, which he likened to the protests over the rights of public-sector unions in Wisconsin.
“The right of all citizens to protest and assemble peacefully is sacred in the State of Tennessee,” Ramsey said in a statement. “However, this General Assembly will not be intimidated by nomadic bands of professional agitators on spring break bent on disruption. We talk through our differences here. Tennessee is not Wisconsin.”
In the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, as many as three dozen protesters chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, union busting has got to go” as lawmakers prepared to take up their bills, including one that would bar unions from using dues to pay for political activities.
Mary Mancini, one of the organizers of a rally that occured earlier in the day at the plaza, told The City Paper the demonstration shows "how upset people are that they [legislators] are attacking the hard working people of Tennessee."
"They were not union members; they are student volunteers. Will they listen to the thousands of union members to create quality jobs, generate revenue for much needed public services, and stop the attack on hard working Tennesseans who provide those services?"
Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of union supporters gathered outside Legislative Plaza and rallied against anti-union bills now before the legislature.
Paramount among their concerns is a bill that would end collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and school systems. State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, was among several legislators on hand to show support for the cause.
“The bill, House Bill 130, is not an education bill,” Stewart told The City Paper. “It is part of a national anti-union effort funded by some national Republicans. One of these days we will learn to stop fighting all our political battles in the schools and let the teachers teach our children.”
Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, took the stage and introduced labor activists from unions ranging from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to the Teamsters, as the crowd cheered their approval.
Similarly, Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, excoriated Republicans in the legislature for what he feels is an attack on the working class and reminded rally attendees that they must show elected officials who is boss at the polls in the 2012 elections.
Rank-and-file workers made their voices heard, too.
Thelma Ritter, a custodial worker at the University of Memphis, proclaimed, “We need more money in our paychecks!” and demanded that public employees receive a living wage.
Bo McCurry, an electrical worker from Sparta, told the crowd that labor must keep up the fight for jobs, and asked for help in trying to keep a Philips electronics plant in his hometown from moving to Mexico.
According to A.J. Starling, director of TN AFL-CIO, participants in Tuesday’s rally came from all over the state to stand together.
“I feel good about today’s effort,” Starling said. “Support for workers’ rights is on the rise and our membership is waking up.”
Pro-labor activists will have a chance to again show their support, as another rally has been called for March 23. A coalition of organizations including Common Cause, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and Tennessee Citizen Action has formed a group called “Tennessee Priorities” and is sponsoring the rally and a day of lobbying legislators.