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Protests Erupt in Kentucky After GOP Supermajority Passes Extreme Anti-Choice, Anti-Union Bills

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In Kentucky, hundreds of demonstrators packed into the Capitol building Saturday to protest the state Legislature’s passage of a slew of controversial bills, including an anti-union “right-to-work” law and extreme anti-choice legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires a woman to have an ultrasound before having an abortion. The surprise emergency legislative session Saturday came after Republicans seized a supermajority in the House of Representatives, giving the Republicans control of the House, the Senate and the governorship for the first time in Kentucky state history. On Saturday, the Legislature also repealed a law that had guaranteed higher wages for workers on publicly financed construction projects. We go to Louisville, Kentucky, for an update from Richard Becker, a union organizer with Service Employees International Union, and we speak with Lisa Abbott, a community organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Louisville, Kentucky, more than a thousand people took to the streets to protest. Hundreds demonstrated inside the Capitol building Saturday to protest the Legislature’s passage of a slew of controversial bills, including an anti-union “right-to-work” law and extreme anti-choice legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires a woman to have an ultrasound before having an abortion.

The surprise emergency legislative session Saturday came after Republicans got a supermajority in the House of Representatives, giving the Republicans control of the state House, the state Senate and the governorship for the first time in Kentucky state history. On Saturday, the Legislature also repealed a law that had guaranteed higher wages for workers on publicly financed construction projects.

In this video, filmed by a member of Teamsters Local 89, you can hear Democratic State Representative Rick Rand speak in the House gallery, condemning one of the measures, Senate Bill 6, which Republicans call the “paycheck protection” bill. As he speaks, you can hear the crowd outside the chambers chanting and booing.

REP. RICK RAND: Labor has a strong voice in these hallways. They have a strong voice in the district I come from. And I know when a strong voice comes to Frankfort, and sometimes they hit a brick wall. And not only have they hit a brick wall, but they are being blocked in, their voices being diminished by this very body.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Joining us in New York, Lisa Abbott is community organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. And in Louisville, Kentucky, Richard Becker is a union organizer with Service Employees International Union.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Richard, let’s start with you. The capital is actually not Louisville. The capital is in Frankfort. But you’re speaking to us from Louisville. Describe what happened in the Legislature and outside.

RICHARD BECKER: Well, thanks, Amy, for having me on this morning. What we saw on Saturday was a response to what had been a week of legislation being passed out of this new House of Representatives at an unprecedented breakneck speed. On Tuesday, new members were sworn in, and by Wednesday the House Economic Development Committee was passing right-to-work out of committee before freshman members had even had phone lines set up or office space set up. And the bills were, of course, as you said, passed out of both chambers on Saturday and got the governor’s signature later in the weekend.

Union members flooded in from across the state, from Paducah to Pikeville, to come to Frankfort so that they could have their voices heard. They had been shut out of the committee rooms on Wednesday, while members of Americans for Prosperity were allowed into the committee room. Union members had been thrown out of the House gallery for daring to take photos of vote counts as they happened. And so, you had a lot of angry people, people whose very livelihoods, the way they feed their families, were on the line. And they came out in droves Saturday, bright and early, before the sun even came up, to make their voices heard, as you heard in that video of Representative Rand speaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what actually took place? I mean, first you have the November election, and the Republicans get a supermajority, Lisa. So you have the House, the Senate and the governorship.

LISA ABBOTT: Yes. And I think it’s important to understand that the political earthquake that we experienced in Kentucky in November—and certainly a similar earthquake, perhaps, could be said occurred across the country—it’s been a long time in coming in Kentucky. Kentucky is historically a conservative Democratic state. There are significantly more Democrats, registered Democrats, in the state than Republicans. But over the last 20 years, there has been—the Republican Party has really gained strength both in the Legislature and in terms of our delegation in Washington, D.C.

So what happened in November was a long time coming, but it also was an earthquake. Seventeen members of the House of Representatives, incumbents, lost their seats. And we had been—Kentucky had been the only state legislature in the South with a divided chamber. The House was controlled by the Democrats, the Senate controlled by Republicans. That came to an end, and the Republicans now have a supermajority in both the House, the Senate. And in 2015, Kentuckians elected Governor Matt Bevin, a tea party Republican, as governor. And so, with that power, that’s—they are now exercising the power that they have just won.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’re headed to North Carolina before going back to Kentucky.


AMY GOODMAN: But I couldn’t help but think of parallels here, when you talk about this emergency session that was called. Is that how it usually happens in Kentucky?

LISA ABBOTT: Well, no. It’s not how it usually happens in Kentucky. And I think the parallels to places like North Carolina, to places like Wisconsin, are clear. What we’re seeing is not just enacting a policy agenda, but really breaking down whatever norms need to be broken down to exercise power in some of the sort of crudest, rawest ways possible. And really, we’re watching as democracy itself in North Carolina and in Kentucky is weakened.

AMY GOODMAN: This is also very significant for the country because Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky. Can you tell us a little about his background, as he wields more and more power in the United States now as the Senate majority leader? But, you know, of course—

LISA ABBOTT: Well, sure. He’s a familiar figure to most Americans watching politics now. His career actually began in Louisville, and when he was elected to local office in Louisville, at the time, he really prided himself on being very pragmatic, on making sure the trains ran on time. As he moved to Washington, he declared that the three rules of politics were very simple. They were money, money and money. And he has pursued those rules for the past 30 years. As a result, he is today one of the wealthiest members of a very wealthy Senate. Meanwhile, the living conditions in Kentucky continue to be very hard. And he has not provided the kind of leadership that is needed or the kind of policy agenda that’s needed to improve the welfare of people living in either our rural areas or our urban communities.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Richard Becker, the actual laws that were passed, the slew of laws that were passed on Saturday, if you could go quickly through them?

RICHARD BECKER: Yeah, so, we had House Bill 1, which was the so-called right-to-work legislation. There is, of course—before Kentucky passed it, 26 other states under this recognition. And that, just to quickly touch on what that is, is a law that allows workers in a unionized workplace to opt out of paying union dues, even while enjoying union representation and the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement. What it does is it erodes solidarity in the union, in that workplace, and it forces—unions under the law have to represent everybody in a workplace, whether they pay dues or not. So it sets up a scenario that really weakens unions in the state that it’s passed.

The other bill we had was House Bill 3, which was repeal of the prevailing wage law, which is a law that sets a minimum wage for skilled construction work on publicly funded projects and encourages local hiring for publicly funded projects. That bill passed, repealing prevailing wage. And then we had Senate Bill 6, which, as you referred to it—they call it the “paycheck protection act,” or we call it sometimes “paycheck deception act,” because, like all these bills, its true purpose is shrouded in a lot of mystery.

And frankly, I just wanted to add that part of what has been such an outrage this week here in Kentucky has been the means by which this legislation was passed. Members of the Legislature were not given the opportunity to read these bills, to thoroughly debate them in committee, to thoroughly debate them on the floors of the chambers before they were passed. And as a result, those of us on the ground here in Kentucky are still actually trying to wrap our heads around what exactly passed. I’m told there were some amendments that were attached to Senate Bill 6. We’re going to have to spend some time letting the dust settle to figure out what exactly came out of the chambers this weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Koch brothers, very quickly, before we wrap up, Lisa Abbott?

LISA ABBOTT: Well, sure. I think that we’ve seen—

AMY GOODMAN: And ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

LISA ABBOTT: ALEC, the American—sure, absolutely. And the Koch brothers and groups funded by them, like Americans for Prosperity, have been very active in Kentucky, as in many other places around the country, active in elections, active in providing so-called model legislation to state lawmakers who very often don’t even know what is in the bills that they are putting before the Legislature as sponsors. And so, we are certainly contending with a very well-funded, multi-strategy agenda from the right.

AMY GOODMAN: Americans for Prosperity stayed in the room, Richard Becker, this weekend. Can you explain what happened?

RICHARD BECKER: So, actually, last Wednesday—so the day after new members were sworn in—the House Economic Development Committee held its meeting, at which they were to be discussing right-to-work and the repeal of prevailing wage. I was with several hundred union members in the halls of the Capitol Annex for the hours leading up to when the meeting was supposed to take place. And five minutes before the meeting was supposed to start, we were told that the room was full. None of us had been able to make it in. We later found out that that’s because Americans for Prosperity had reserved the committee room for a breakfast that morning, and come time for the committee to meet, they all just remained in their seats. So, when the committee meeting started, union members were shut out of the committee room, and the doors were shut, and state troopers stood in front of the doors to keep union members from attending the committee hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow what happens in Kentucky as we do the rest of the nation. Richard Becker, thanks so much for joining us. Richard Becker, a union organizer with SEIU based in Louisville, Kentucky. And thank you so much to Lisa Abbott—

LISA ABBOTT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —who’s here with us in New York, but is head of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, headed back soon to Louisville.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, repeal and replace? Repeal and run? What’s going to happen to Obamacare? And is there a road to single payer, something that once President-elect Donald Trump said he supported? Stay with us.

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