April 19, 2011
The Senate on Tuesday sent Gov. Mary Fallin a bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from city employees in Oklahoma's largest cities.
House Bill 1593 passed Tuesday on a 29-19 vote supported entirely by Senate Republicans.
The bill would repeal a state law granting collective bargaining rights to nonuniformed city employees in cities with populations of more than 35,000.
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Labor unions and Democrats criticized it as an unfair union-busting tactic, while Republicans argued that it simply lets local officials decide whether to bargain with unions.
“It's about a principle that I believe in — local control,” said Sen. Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City, the bill's Senate author.
Aldridge said forcing cities to bargain often amounts to an unfunded mandate, but Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice said the bill disrespects workers who do “dirty jobs” like sewer maintenance and waste collection.
“We're really sending a nasty message to the people who do work in our communities,” said Rice, D-Oklahoma City.
Aldridge said he took offense to the claims.
“I respect the guy that picks up my garbage,” Aldridge said. “It doesn't matter to me what their position is. I don't think any less of the guy that shows up in our office building every night and cleans the toilets and takes the trash out. I'm glad that he is there to do it.”
Fallin, a Republican, has not yet committed to signing the bill.
“She does, however, support the bill's intent, which is to save taxpayer dollars and drive down costs for city governments,” said Alex Weintz, Fallin's spokesman.
The Municipal Employees Collective Bargaining Act was signed into law in 2004 by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
It applies mostly to city road, sanitation and utility workers in the 12 cities in Oklahoma with more than 35,000 residents.
Some city officials have said they will continue to bargain with workers, regardless of whether the bill becomes law, while others have called the existing law flawed.
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Four cities — including Oklahoma City and Tulsa — were already bargaining with nonuniformed employees before the law went into effect.
Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch said his city has “a good working relationship” with its nonuniformed employee union.
“I don't foresee this legislation changing that,” Couch said.
But critics fear other cities will walk away from the bargaining table after the current year's work contract expires, leaving workers without many of the rights they have today.
“I feel like it's a sad day for Oklahoma,” said Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
Curry said some cities the law applies to previously refused to bargain with or listen to workers.
“That's why the law was written and passed,” he said.
All Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans voted against HB 1593.
One of those Republicans, Sen. Ralph Shortey, said the voice of city workers would be silenced without collective bargaining.
“Give them a voice, for God's sake,” said Shortey, R-Oklahoma City.
Shortey voted for the bill in a Senate committee last month. He claimed Tuesday he “had no idea what was going on” during the committee vote.