City leaders from Enid to Bartlesville urge repeal of new union law

Friday, January 14th 2005, 10:25 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A new state law that allows municipal workers in cities of more than 35,000 to unionize will ultimately lead to higher taxes and reduced city services, city leaders said Friday.

About two dozen city leaders met at the State Capitol to express their concerns over the Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act, passed by the Oklahoma Legislature last year.

Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, promised an attempt to repeal the law in the legislative session that begins Feb. 7. A number of cities have filed legal challenges, and a judge found the law unconstitutional this week in a lawsuit brought by the city of Enid.

"(The new law) is merely the first step in unionizing all municipalities and must be repealed," Shawnee Mayor Chuck Mills said. "The added overhead burden of this unfunded mandate would result in an estimated 20 to 30 percent increase in the cost of services that we provide to our citizens."

But city workers who gathered outside the news conference hosted by the Oklahoma Municipal League said they simply want the same opportunity that police and firefighters have to collectively bargain with cities.

"We just want to be able to sit across the table from city management and negotiate for wages, benefits and working conditions," said Bobby Benoit, a sanitation operator from Lawton. "We're not allowed that privilege."

Blaine Rummel, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said there was no plan to lower the population threshold from 35,000 and that the Oklahoma Municipal League was engaging in "fear tactics." Rummel, whose organization represents about 3,000 workers in Oklahoma, also disputed the 25 to 30 percent cost increase estimates cited by several city leaders.

"The OML and anti-worker politicians can side with junk science and fear tactics, but we're going to side with workers," he said.

Oklahoma County District Judge Daniel Owen ruled Wednesday that the new law is unconstitutional because the 35,000 population threshold is arbitrary and unfair to smaller cities.

He ruled in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Enid against AFSCME and the state Public Employees Relations Board. Several other cities, including Moore, Lawton and Bartlesville also have pending lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law, which applies to non-uniformed municipal employees.

Officials with AFSCME said they plan to appeal Owen's decision and urged cities to drop their lawsuits against city workers.

"Give the collective bargaining law a chance to work," said Bartlesville city employee Mark Brim.

But Senate Republican leader Glenn Coffee and Rep. Bill Case said they filed a bill to repeal the new law entirely and called on leaders in the Democrat-controlled Senate to support them.

"The legislation last year put politics before policy," said Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. "Let's end this now. Let's reverse course and protect our cities."