Labor union debate heats up in Oklahoma Legislature

A rally is planned for Monday at the state Capitol, where lawmakers are considering proposals that unions claim will be harmful to the rights of public employees.
BY JOHN ESTUS jestus@opubco.com Published: April 3, 2011
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Bickering between unions and politicians is heating up at the state Capitol, where union workers plan to rally Monday.

The rally is part of a national labor union initiative to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who was slain 43 years ago Monday while in Memphis, Tenn., to support unionized city sanitation workers who were on strike.

In Oklahoma, the gathering will also serve as a union rallying cry against Republican-sponsored legislation that would repeal collective bargaining rights for city employees and change how police and firefighter union labor disputes are handled, among other things.

Unions have blasted the proposals as attempts to weaken the rights of public employees.

So far, Oklahoma's labor debate has been modest compared to the heated protests in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, where organized labor is much stronger than in Oklahoma.

Still, as labor proposals have progressed through the Oklahoma Legislature, labor supporters have started fearing what would happen if those bills become law.

“I think that the system unravels,” said Jim Moore, a longtime Oklahoma City labor attorney. “I think we go back to what I refer to as the bad old days, where you would have the lawsuits, strikes, interruptions in service, low morale and employee frustration.”

Benefiting taxpayers

Republicans say the proposals would benefit taxpayers by reigning in “shocking” spending on employee compensation that makes it tough for governments to fund basic services.

Among the most vocal advocates for state labor law changes is Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, who often cites statistics showing the average total compensation package for an Oklahoma City police officer or firefighter has approached $100,000 a year.

“I cite it because I think a lot of citizens are shocked when they see the salaries,” Holt said. “Public employees have benefited greatly from a system that favors them, sometimes at the expense of the taxpayers.”

Holt, a former Oklahoma City mayoral chief of staff, has authored a bill to change a police and firefighter union labor dispute process he says is flawed and leads to expensive personnel costs.

Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, has also cited expensive personnel in defending legislation he authored to repeal collective bargaining rights for most city employees that labor supporters have blasted as a union-busting tactic.

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At a glance

LABOR LEGISLATION

Unions are opposed to two bills that would change or repeal certain labor laws pertaining to public employees in Oklahoma.

HOUSE BILL 1593 would repeal the entire Municipal Employees Collective Bargaining Act, which became law in 2004 and requires cities with more than 35,000 residents to collectively bargain with nonuniformed employee unions. The law applies to 13 cities, but there has been confusion about whether repealing it would end collective bargaining for nonuniformed workers in the four cities that were already bargaining with the workers before the law went into effect.

Status: Passed the House; awaiting hearing in the full Senate.

Author: Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville

SENATE BILL 826 would change certain parts of binding arbitration, a process that occurs when cities and police or firefighter unions can't reach an agreement on a work contract. The changes would give preference to in-state arbitrators and restrict certain city funds from being chosen by arbitrators as funding sources for employee compensation. The bill is supported by the state police union, but opposed by the state firefighter union.

Status: Passed the Senate; awaiting hearing in a House committee.

Author: Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City

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