(CNSNews.com) - The battle over whether union officials should be able to force workers to join a union and pay dues escalated Wednesday when AFL-CIO protesters used bullhorns to interrupt a meeting of right-to-work advocates at the Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill.
Political leaders from Oklahoma gathered at Heritage to talk about implementing a right-to-work strategy following a September referendum in which Oklahoma voters decided to amend their state constitution with a right-to-work provision. Twenty-one other states have similar laws.
More than 30 demonstrators, however, stormed the lobby of the Heritage Foundation, staging a sit-in outside the door of the auditorium and using bullhorns and chants to interrupt the meeting until Capitol Police arrived.
U.S. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said he views the right-to-work debate as "a battle for freedom."
"Everybody should have the right to join a union and a right not to join a union," Nickles said. "No one should be compelled to join a union.
"It is a very simple and fundamental freedom, one that you have to fight for. Freedom has never ever been free and you have to step up to the plate and fight," Nickles said.
Nickles thanked business leaders and other politicians for supporting the right-to-work initiative.
"I just want to say thank you for fighting this fight. I think it took a broad effort. It took political leadership. It took grassroots efforts. It took editorial efforts. It took a lot of people standing up for what is right, and, frankly, the issue is right."
Nickles said Oklahoma's right-to-work amendment, which affects all contracts negotiated after Sept. 28, would protect employee freedom, promote economic growth and create new jobs.
R. Marc Nuttle, the chief strategist for Oklahoma's right-to-work initiative, said the debate revolves around a "classic" question: "Should you have to pay union dues as a condition of employment? It is as simple as that," he said.
Nuttle also outlined the level of opposition mounted against the Oklahoma initiative.
"Labor took this very seriously. They admitted to spending $15 million. We can calculate about $20 million," Nuttle said. "We raised and spent about $6.4 million. It was the most money ever spent and raised in a campaign, by far, in the state of Oklahoma. It ranks nationally per capita as one of the top expenses in a race in the last twenty years."
Nuttle also questioned the tactics of labor groups in the campaign. "It was a campaign strategy by labor to lie and lie often. The point was to scare a certain sector of society that was very dependant upon government programs, particularly single women with children."
As right-to-work advocates listened to Nuttle describe the success of the campaign, AFL-CIO members and supporters crashed the meeting.
Using bullhorns, protestors chanted, "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Right To Work Has Got To Go." and "Right To Work Means Work For Less."
Steve Rosenthal, political director for the AFL-CIO, led the protest.
"We are demonstrating because we are opposed to right-to-work. We think it is bad for working people. It is going to lower wages, there will be fewer people with health care benefits, fewer people with pensions," Rosenthal said. "The bottom line is that in states where there is right-to-work, we have seen a deterioration of living standards for working families.
"It's not a matter of businesses leaving, it is a matter of getting paid a decent, livable wage for working families," Rosenthal added. "What happens in states with right-to-work is that unions are weaker and as a result, it is clear that unions provide better wages and living standards for working families."
Protestors peacefully filed out of the lobby of the Heritage Foundation when Capitol Police arrived. A picket line was formed outside the building and protestors marched and chanted but quickly left the premises.
A coalition of unions, including the Oklahoma chapter of the AFL-CIO, is suing to overturn the state's right-to-work amendment, arguing that certain provisions contradict federal law and are violations of the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause. The clause stipulates that federal law supersedes state law.
The lawsuit is expected to reach the courtroom in the next several months.