03/29/2012 12:31 pm ET

Tea Party, Unions Join Forces Against Chamber-Backed Anti-Protest Bill

Labor unions and Tea Party activists came together at the Georgia statehouse Thursday morning to speak out against a controversial bill that they say could drastically limit free-speech rights.

The bill, which was drafted to restrict unions' ability to protest outside businesses and private residences, has attracted a broad and unlikely coalition of opponents across the state, including both liberals and conservatives who say the law would be unconstitutional. Hundreds such opponents gathered in protest at the capitol building in Atlanta on Thursday, chanting "We own the Dome!" The bill passed swiftly through the state Senate and could come up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

Introduced by Waffle House executive and Georgia Chamber of Commerce board member Sen. Don Balfour (R), the bill would impose $1,000 fines on people who mass picket in a way that "obstructs" or "interferes" with a business in the midst of a labor dispute, or who picket outside the private residence of an executive in a way that interferes with the resident's "right of quiet enjoyment."

But opponents of the bill say an amendment to the House version would greatly broaden the law's applicability. After critics argued that the bill unfairly targeted labor unions -- perhaps unconstitutionally -- an early reference to unions was apparently stricken from the bill. The result, says Julianne Thompson, Georgia state director for the Tea Party Patriots, is legislation that would restrict the protest rights of all groups, not just unions.

"They've actually made it worse," says Thompson, who stood with unions and criticized the bill as unconstitutional, even before the amendment. "So now what they've done is said you can't protest near a private residence for any reason, no matter what and no matter who you're with."

Joining the Georgia AFL-CIO and others on the left, several conservatives believe the broad language of the bill makes it ripe for abuse. Given the mixed-use nature of developments in Atlanta and elsewhere, the "right of quiet enjoyment" clause could be used to stifle just about any protest that happens to be near a residence, says Kay Godwin, a conservative activist and well-known player in Georgia GOP politics. What's more, says Godwin, the controversial bill does nothing to address the economic issues that should be preoccupying Georgia legislators.

"It's bad, it's not needed, and anytime you see a bill pushed through the way this has been pushed through, you know to stop and pay attention," she says. "We have so many issues that are so important and so many people out of work. Why are we dealing with this when we have fundamental issues that need to be dealt with across the board?"

Republicans in the Georgia House committee handling the bill approved it before most Democrats realized it was up for a vote, according to Morris News Service. That speed has characterized the whole process, says Godwin. "By the time we figured out what was going on," she says, "they already had [the bill] in high gear."

The anti-picketing bill, known as SB 469, was written by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The business trade group says in a brief on the bill that it's intended to "protect" the safety of workers "during union organizing efforts or demonstrations."

"The Georgia Chamber believes this bill provides that balance and also ensures workplace disagreements are handled at work and not at private homes," the group argues.

The Georgia AFL-CIO has strongly criticized the bill, saying it infringes on the First Amendment rights of unions and all citizens. Charlie Flemming, the group's president, told HuffPost last week that labor activists in the state were thrilled to find support among Tea Party members, a group with whom they typically don’t share much common ground.

"We may have disagreements about labor and other issues but the reality is we all agree this is our constitutional right to stand up speak out and protest," Flemming said. "I would certainly support their right to do likewise. So I think it's terrific."