Kansas's war on workers, coming soon to a state near you (and by the way, how can the Secretary of Labor do her job when she doesn't even know what the AFL-CIO is?)

by Colin Curtis

In recent history Kansas has become the breeding ground for extremist right wing agendas, legislation and beliefs. The Kansas Republican Party has abandoned the moderate beliefs of former heroes like President Dwight Eisenhower and turned into the main water carriers for the Kochs, ALEC and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. Since the Republican “clean sweep” of 2010, when the conservative arms of the Kansas GOP led by Gov. Sam Brownback took every statewide office, every Congressional seat and an overwhelming majority in the House, it has been an all-out war on the middle and working classes.

Kansas is becoming the proving ground for extremist legislation. Last year the legislature attempted to pass a string of anti-worker bills like HB 2130, which is on par with Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation to prohibit volunteer union dues deductions for political activity, effectively silencing the voice of working Kansans in the political process. After flying out of the House it was eventually held up by the moderate-controlled Senate and has yet to see the light of day there. This year is no different.

With over a dozen anti-worker bills having been introduced this year, we have reached the last leg of the legislative session without any getting passed on to Gov. Brownback as of yet.

Last week, we met with a representative of the Senate leadership; Kansas Sec. of Labor Karin Brownlee; representatives for several business interests, such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas NFIB, Kansas SHRM; and representatives of multiple unions. The purpose of our meeting was to, first, provide some understanding as to the need for Senate Bill 413 and, second, to see if any compromise could be made between Brownlee / the business community and the representatives of workers on SB 413.

As a reminder, SB 413 is another version of Brownback Secretary of Labor Karin Brownlee’s court-packing scheme (HB 2531). It gives employers five seats on the seven-member nominating committee for work comp and UI judges. The sixth member is a “public employee representative” hand-picked by the Sec. of Labor, and the final member is a representative of the Kansas AFL-CIO. Which means at best, when a pro-worker Sec. of Labor is in office, the nominating commission is stacked five to two against workers and in the current climate it would be six to one. The proposed court-packing scheme doesn’t even attempt to display fairness. It’s a pure political power grab that will have devastating consequences on the integrity of the workers compensation system and the unemployment system.

The current system for the selection of the Appeals Board members for workers compensation has been in effect since 1993. Essentially, when vacancies occur, the Kansas Chamber and Kansas AFL-CIO meet and send a nominee to the Secretary of Labor. The appointment is for four years, and the Appeals Board members are permitted to reapply. The system worked so well that it was extended for the selection of Administrative Law Judges, or ALJs. Brownlee’s argument for this change to the current balanced process is that “organized labor only represents 7.6% of workers” (the Kansas DOL later tweeted 10.1%, so there seems to be some interagency confusion on the facts – no surprise there). Brownlee feels that business interests should also have an opportunity to represent their employees in a system where the employee is making a claim against said business.

While Brownlee’s logic is interesting, it’s completely wrong. Here are the facts.

Kansas is a right-to-work state. Which means unions are lawfully mandated to represent all workers in any type of negotiations; whether that worker is a dues-paying member or not, he or she is represented by the union. You can’t have it both ways and say that unions only represent 7.6% (or 10.1%) of the workforce while lawfully mandating them to represent everyone. Every worker is required to be represented, regardless of dues-paying status, if they are employed within a represented bargaining unit. That is the essence of Kansas’ right-to-work law.

Brownlee attempted to make an appeal about other union organizations not being represented in the process, specifically asking “what about the communications workers? Don’t they deserve a voice in this?” Turns out, out Brownlee didn’t know that CWA is actually a member of the AFL-CIO (or, for that matter, what the AFL-CIO even is). She had no idea that the AFL-CIO is a union of unions. Interesting.

A few thing were made abundantly clear in the meeting.

1. There would be no compromise. Brownlee quickly shut down that possibility. She wants SB 413 to come flying out of committee just as she wrote it, ensuring that Kansas workers won’t have a fair shot for years to come.

2. In her second year on the job, the Kansas Secretary of Labor plainly illustrated that she has no idea what the AFL-CIO is or does. Since Brownlee took office the Kansas Department of Labor hasn’t represented a single worker’s interest and has only catered to the Kansas Chamber’s extremist anti-worker agenda.

3. Brownlee and the other business representatives in the room failed to name a single issue with the current process. SB 413 is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

Yesterday the Kansas Legislature returned for the last leg of the Legislative session — the wrap up session — with a lot left to do, including passing a budget, drawing the district maps fot this year’s elections and, also, let’s not forget the conference committee of SB 416 (which you can read about here).

You can be sure that the attacks we’re seeing in Kansas are headed to legislatures across the country.

Colin Curtis was born and raised in Kansas. He grew up in politics and has made standing up for workers’ rights his passion. He currently works for The Bison Group, a Kansas-based political consulting and lobbying firm, and serves as the Communications Director for the Working Kansas Alliance, a coalition of union and nonunion groups organized around workers’ issues in the Kansas legislature.