State troopers work to remove pro-labor protesters who had disrupted a Senate Commerce Committee meeting in Nashville on Tuesday. Seven protesters were later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
NASHVILLE — A Chattanooga woman and six other union supporters were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest Tuesday after they disrupted a state Senate hearing where a series of anti-union bills was to be considered.
Ash-Lee Henderson, 25, a member of Chattanooga Organized for Action, was among a group of 30 to 40 protesters, many of them students, who went to the Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
They appeared to grow frustrated and began shouting at committee members after the panel spent more than an hour listening to lobbyists arguing over a telecommunications bill pushed by AT&T.
Group members then began chanting about “union busting” by legislative Republicans. Those who defied Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson’s directive to leave found themselves about a half hour later facing troopers. Some linked arms and fell to the floor in passive resistance. Troopers began forcibly separating them and dragging them off.
Other protesters shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as their friends were hauled out.
Among those arrested was Henderson, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety. The six others were from Memphis and several of them were members of the Progressive Student Alliance at the University of Memphis.
In a statement, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said “the right of all citizens to protest and assemble peacefully is sacred in the State of Tennessee. 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,” Ramsey said. “Tennessee is not Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s Capitol was the scene of massive protests as Republicans there pushed to strip public unions of most of their collective bargaining powers.
Earlier in the day, Henderson rallied with hundreds of AFL-CIO members, Teamsters, other unions, the Tennessee Education Association and allies. They are protesting bills that strip the Tennessee Education Association and its members of their collective bargaining powers along with other bills that among other things would ban unions from using dues to make political contributions.
“They will not take our voice away,” Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council President Jerry Lee told the crowd. “They can try as hard as they want but we will never give up our fight.”
Henderson also spoke at that rally, telling the crowd “the legislature doesn’t control that outcome. ... They either fight this legislation that a few of them have put through or we win later because we take their power.”
Later, dozens of protesters went to the state Capitol building where they pounded on a door and windows when troopers initially refused to let them in. Eventually, several dozen who agreed not to be disruptive and put down their signs were allowed into the building. All later left at the urging of AFL-CIO officials. A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam said the governor had been in his office.
Jared Story, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga employee and member of the United Campus Workers, didn’t reject Ramsey’s characterization of the protesters as “agitators.”
“But I think for Ramsey to characterize this as people who are just randomly disruptive is false,” he said, noting the protesters “are concerned about the attacks on labor.”
“We will be back at the Capitol,” he vowed.
Leaders of the Tennessee Education Association and AFL-CIO appeared to be taken aback by the Commerce Committee protest.
“It’s kind of a surprise,” the AFL-CIO’s Lee later said. “We always ask our folks to come in and be respective of decorum.”
Tennessee Education Association chief lobbyist Jerry Winters said of the protesters that “I honestly don’t know who they are. It’s just really an unorthodox situation down here to have this happen. Again, I’m not condoning it. It’s not the way government ought to work. But I think it does show there’s a whole lot of frustrations out there.”
The bill to strip teachers of collective bargaining powers is scheduled to be discussed in the House Education Subcommittee today.
Henderson’s mother, Tamara Henderson, said she was proud of her daughter. She compared the arrests to pivotal moments during the civil rights era when there were “people in Mississippi and Alabama who were hosed.”
“That’s how I felt,” Tamara Henderson said as a tear rolled down her left cheek. “Any of you guys got kids? You ever seen your child in shackles?”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...