So you're thinking about protesting outside the home of a CEO who's ignored his factory's shoddy working conditions. Maybe you and some friends are planning to stage a sit-in at that bank that's refused to modify loans.
Under legislation introduced by state Sen. Don Balfour, the former could result in a $1,000 fine. And the latter? Well, that could get you charged with a felony. Yes, despite the fact that Georgia has some of the weakest labor laws and lowest union memberships in the country, the Snellville Republicans wants to further clamp down on the organizations. And it looks like the Occupy movement won't get a pass either.
Balfour's Senate Bill 496 would, among other things, add "private residences" to the list of places where "mass picketing" about a labor dispute would be verboten. The legislation would also allow businesses to ask a judge to halt the protests. If the picketing continues, protesters could be slapped with a $1,000 fine. In addition, any union or organization which "continues to sponsor or assist in the prohibited activity" would be subject to $10,000 fine. Businesses which think they suffered damage from the picketing could ask for a cut of that cash.
What's most worrisome about the legislation, says Ben Speight, organizing director of the Teamsters Local 728, is a provision he thinks is a "direct reaction" to a Feb. 13 sit-in the labor union carried out with Occupy Atlanta and other organizations at AT&T's Midtown headquarters to protest layoffs at the telecommunications company. Twelve protesters were arrested for criminal trespass, a misdemeanor.
If SB 496 were approved, however, protesters could have been convicted of both criminal trespass and conspiracy to commit criminal trespass, a felony which could result in up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
"That's a blatant silencing of dissent and basic freedoms," he says.
According to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's summary of the bill (which the bidness booster group supports) (PDF): "This legislation recognizes the inherent need to protect the property of others and is designed to punish organizations that instruct their members to commit vandalism in an attempt to disrupt an employer’s operations or to intimidate customers and related entities."
But Speight says that Balfour, the bill's author, has cast too wide a net with the legislation. And non-union organizations and movements other than Occupy could be stifled as a result, he says, including "all social justice movements from woman's rights, environmental justice, [and] immigrant's rights." If such a bill existed years ago, Speight argues, such acts of civil disobedience as sit-ins and marches might have never taken place.
"It’s one thing to violate our constitutional rights," Speight says. "It’s another thing to so blatantly violate our human rights... Every single thing that [MLK] was arrested for involved actions that were peaceful civil disobedience, including criminal trespass. This will take us back 80 years to the point where there were no legal unions and where working people and poor folks had no organized voice to express themselves in the political and social arena."
It's unclear exactly why the bill's been proposed. As far as we know, Occupy Atlanta hasn't picketed in front of any corporate executive's home. (Maybe the leaderless protest movement's Midtown campground is a bit too close to the campaign-funded, high-rise condo where Balfour, a Waffle House executive, lays his head during the session?)
Speight notes that the bill's sponsors are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market organization that's been accused of championing anti-labor policies. Speight thinks the bill exhibits telltale signs of being "template legislation" that such groups typically hand off to state lawmakers throughout the country to change policy. (Attempts to reach Balfour by email were unsuccessful. If he responds, we'll update.)
Balfour's the all-powerful Senate Rules Committee chairman, which means he decides which bills and resolutions make it to the upper chamber's floor for a vote. That role wields great respect from his colleagues, so it's safe to assume that many lawmakers won't want to block this pet measure. Whether it faces opposition in the House is unclear.
Speight, union officials and their members will pack the Gold Dome on Tuesday, he says, and will speak with lawmakers about the bill. Occupy Atlanta's planned a march on the Capitol the following day. He's calling on all groups to push back against the proposal.
"I think when most people in Georgia and progressive folks understand the impact that this bill will have, we can defeat it," he says. "But we have the deck stacked against us in a one-party state legislature."
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