Kansas public employees fighting anti-worker agenda

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Faced with a virulent anti-worker agenda in a politically skewed Legislature, Kansas public employees are mobilizing to preserve their voice and their fundamental right to participate in public life.

HB 2023, which was passed in the Kansas House of Representatives and is expected to pass in the Senate, takes away the right of public employees to have COPE (political education) contributions deducted from paychecks. It also would set aggressive limits on worker participation in the political arena—turning basic rights into misdemeanor offenses—and it is expected to be signed by Gov. Sam Brownback, who has championed virtually every attack on public sector unions of late. Another bill, HB 2123, would deny public employee unions the right to collect dues by paycheck deduction.

The AFT-affiliated Kansas Organization of State Employees, together with AFT-Kansas, is fighting back. KOSE, which is also affiliated with AFSCME, currently has launched a campaign to help members recommit dues through alternative avenues, keeping public employees unions strong and supported in the face of a hostile Legislature and administration.

The recommit campaign is just one way that public employees are stepping up to the challenge. KOSE also has launched an online petition campaign, and AFT-Kansas showed up in force at the Capitol in Topeka on Jan. 14, the first day of the legislative session, for a "People's State of the State" rally. Held the day before Gov. Brownback's State of the State address, the rally drew Kansans from across the state—including members of labor unions, women's and civil rights groups, healthcare advocacy groups and community organizations. Their goal: to sound the alarm over the threats posed by Brownback's agenda, including tax and spending policies that put all Kansans at risk.

Brownback's "slash-and-trash" approach to taxes and public services, AFT-Kansas president Lisa Ochs told the crowd outside the Capitol, is a sop for corporations and the mega-wealthy, a calculated political move that generates a "self-inflicted shortfall as an excuse to gut" essential services. In August , the governor asked state agencies to prepare for and propose even deeper cuts for the fiscal year beginning July 2013—cuts of 10 percent of their budgets—and now has signaled he wants even deeper cuts in services to bankroll more tax breaks for corporations and wealthy interests.

"This agenda being pushed by the governor and many of our legislators—with the backing of corporate interests and groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council—is directly opposed to the values we hold as Kansans and would undermine many of the things that make life good here," Ochs said.

Just how polarized Kansas politics has become was made plain this session when legislators took the unusual step of extending their session at least 14 days beyond the traditional schedule. Extra time will go to a longer midsession break—leading to open speculation in the media that the change was made to allow legislators to attend an early May meeting of ALEC, one of the most toxic, anti-worker and anti-union "bill mills" operating in state and local politics.

"It's a coincidence," state House speaker Ray Merrick told the Associated Press when questioned about the schedule shift.

Merrick is one of two GOP politicians in the state on ALEC's governing board, and he recently wrote a letter to other legislators urging them to join ALEC, a letter that took pains to point out the group's May meeting. [Mike Rose, Christine Bartolomeo, Tom Lansworth]

February 11, 2013