The surprising new alliance between the Tea Party and labor

Could an anti-union bill in Georgia erase right-wing protesters too? Tea Partiers aren't taking any chances

Published March 22, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

         (AP/Al Grillo/Salon)
(AP/Al Grillo/Salon)

When Republicans rode Tea Party anger to large majorities in Georgia’s state Legislature in 2010, it seemed inevitable that sooner or later some of these restive constituents would turn against them. Few, though, would have predicted the cause of an uprising that went down this week: an anti-picketing bill aimed at silencing union members.

On March 7, the Georgia Senate passed SB 469, a bill backed by the state’s Chamber of Commerce and introduced by state senators including Waffle House executive Don Balfour. Along with a battery of other anti-union measures, the bill bans picketing that targets private residences and causes “intimidation” or disturbs the “quiet enjoyment” of local residents. (“Quiet enjoyment” apparently being a more fundamental right than freedom of speech.) SB 469 would increase potential punishments for picketing or “conspiracy,” and it would make it easier for companies to request and receive injunctions from judges halting demonstrations. In a letter to Balfour, Ted Jackson, the sheriff of Georgia’s largest county, wrote that “The role of law enforcement shouldn’t be to police free speech but the intent of this bill seems to be just that.” (Balfour did not respond to Salon’s request for comment.)

Unions began rallying in opposition to the bill shortly after it was introduced last month and have been active ever since. They've been joined by several non-labor groups that also see the bill as a threat to their right to demonstrations. Occupy, environmentalist and civil rights activists have warned for weeks that the broadly written bill put their protest rights at risk as well. On Monday, so did the Atlanta Tea Party.

“We were extremely excited when they showed up,” says Georgia AFL-CIO president Charlie Flemming. “We [had] reached out to them, not knowing that they would.”

As Dave Jamieson reported for the Huffington Post, the Atlanta Tea Party sent a message Monday to its 50,000-person email list calling SB 469 “a gross violation of the First Amendment.” That day, Tea Partyers joined union members and others in packing a House Industrial Relations Committee hearing on the bill. Debbie Dooley, whom Teamsters Local 728 political director Eric Robertson calls “the most well-known Tea Party activist in Georgia,” was among those testifying against the bill.

“Labor unions have First Amendment rights just like Tea Parties,” Dooley says. “I don’t see how you can say it’s OK for one group to go and protest in front of CNN but a labor union can’t.”

Her testimony, along with the Tea Party revolt, may have made a difference. The next day, the 35th day of Georgia’s 40-day legislative session, the Industrial Relations Committee canceled a planned vote on SB 469.  There's not much time left for the House to pass the measure.  Dooley thinks, based on conversations with Republican legislators, SB 469 is already dead.

“They’re traditionally the Republicans’ allies,” says Flemming, and so if SB 469 is defeated, Tea Party opposition “might be the reason, and then again, it might just be the final straw.”

But labor is still aggressively lobbying to stop it.  "This is a test case," says Robertson.  If SB 469 passes, "they're going to roll it out everywhere else." He and Flemming say labor and the Tea Party have discussed working together to target Balfour and other SB 469 supporters in Republican primaries, though Dooley says “469 would not be one of our criteria” in determining which incumbents to oppose. And while Dooley notes that SB 469 is not the first time the Atlanta Tea Party has clashed with Republicans, the cooperation with labor does not signal the start of a long and happy friendship.

For starters, labor and the Tea Party opposed the bill for different reasons. Robertson sees a bill from “the corporate far right” that’s “designed to crush dissent and to mortally cripple the labor movement.” Certainly, labor is far more constrained in its right to picket than Occupy or Tea Party groups. Union members are bound by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, which restrict what legal scholars call “secondary boycotts”  pulling suppliers or customers into disputes. And when the Supreme Court affirmed that anti-gay activists are free to picket military funerals with signs that say “God Hates Fags,” it left untouched an earlier precedent excluding union picketing from the same protections. So union activists in Georgia see SB 469 as yet another attempt to tie their hands behind their backs.

Tea Party opposition does not run nearly as deep. Dooley says she wouldn’t object to banning protests in “strictly residential” neighborhoods, but the bill as written “would have affected a lot of our protests, because the language was so broad.” Another Tea Party leader, Virginia Galloway, the Georgia state director for Americans for Prosperity, says of the House, “If they would fix some of the details, we would have a good deal.”

Dooley also says she supports other recent union-busting actions like those against public workers’ collective-bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. “Any time taxpayer dollars are involved, I think there should be tighter restrictions.” But SB 469 is a reminder that labor rights are a First Amendment issue, not just the fiscal one that many conservatives have painted it to be. “This was within our core values,” Dooley says, “because it would limit our right to protest.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Georgia Tea Party