By Charles McCune
A long, hard fight was won by Muskogee City workers last month to restore collective bargaining rights and restore city recognition of their union, AFSCME Local 2465. The move comes as a ray of hope in a year which has seen repeated defeats across the nation for public sector workers and the push to crush workers’ rights.
At the same time that Wisconsin lay in a pitched battle over collective bargaining rights for public employees last year, city officials in Muskogee, Oklahoma were pushing plans of their own to crush workers’ rights, and outsource local public employees’ jobs. What they had not counted on was the collective power of the workers, fighting for their livelihoods and the rights of workers everywhere.
Following the signing into law of the bill repealing the Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act in April 2011, Muskogee City Manager Greg Buckley began to work to press the Muskogee city council to de-recognize the city employee’s union, AFSCME Local 2465, telling the council that the majority of city workers did not want or care about union representation. In June of last year, city councilors voted to end the collective bargaining rights for 186 of the city’s 480 employees. To add insult to injury, they also began to consider plans to privatize the city waste water treatment plant, which would have ended over half of the public worker’s jobs in the plant, outsourcing to a non-local management company. Upon hearing of the plan to undermine their livelihoods, the plant workers and members of AFSCME local 2465 took action.
The bid being considered by the city was from Veolia, a French water management company, and would have cost the city $800,000. The city workers knew that they, as American workers and native Oklahomans, could more effectively manage the plant than a foreign-based multi-national corporation could, so they wrote their own “Request for Proposal”. John Reeves, a plant operator at the water facility and proud union member remarked upon being
asked about the proposal, “Had the city adopted our plan, taxpayers would have saved $200,000.” The proposal was brought to Buckley, who immediately shot it down. Undaunted, the public workers presented their RFP to city council, voicing their opposition to outsourcing on the basis that they could manage efficiency and costs more effectively. “We’re the ones that do the work. We know where we can create efficiency and we know how to save the taxpayer’s money,” said Dustin Williams, local 2465 member, to a packed city council meeting in September 2011. As a direct result of the public worker’s arguments, the city council stopped the outsourcing attempt in a 4-5 vote, but the city manager still refused to accept the workers’ proposal.
Having successfully won the battle against privatizing the waste water plant, the city workers set their sights on restoring collective bargaining rights in the city. A historic coalition of solidarity was formed between AFSCME and members of the police and firefighters unions, military veterans, pastors of local congregations in the NAACP, and Muskogee County Democrats. With their contract with the city set to expire on October 31, 2011, union members began a drive to build union membership within their workplaces and present an appeal to the city council, showing the city leadership that the workers did in fact want union representation. As Dustin Williams, a Parks and Recreation worker, told the local Muskogee Phoenix newspaper, “I would hope the City Council will see employees do want a union,” Williams said. “And we are willing to fight for that right.”
In a city council meeting in October, councilors voted 8-1 to approve the drafting of a city ordinance which would allow the return of collective bargaining if city workers petition to have their union status re-recognized. Muskogee Mayor John Tyler Hammons agreed to draft the proposal and return it to be voted on in December. In the meantime, however, city workers would lose their official union representation. At the time, the union supporters heralded the decision as a victory: “We’re just tickled to death that the working man has won the right to bargain collectively with the city,” commented Muskogee County Democrat Party chairman Dennis Wilhite. However, when the mayor’s draft came back and was approved by city council on December 12th 2011, the union members were less than pleased. Despite opening the possibility for the restoration of collective bargaining rights, the ordinance placed unusual and stringent requirements to bring them back – as reported in the Phoenix: “The ordinance requires the support of 30 percent of the city’s estimated 180 non-uniform employees to petition the city for an election. If an election is set, more than half of the eligible employees would have to vote in favor of representation. Any employee who fails to cast a ballot would be considered to have voted against union representation.” Until such a petition was passed, and elections held, the union would remain unrecognized. AFSCME Organizer Matt Jordan called the measure a “slap in the face” to city workers, stating that it goes against more than 40 years of contract negotiation with the city.
The union immediately set to work, organizing the petition among city workers to hold an election. Over 100 employees out of the 186 non-uniformed workers filled out cards stating they wished to be represented by a union. In the meantime, a closely-fought city council race resulted in the victory of 3 pro-union candidates in the April 3rd 2012 runoffs. Following this good news, the new Muskogee city council met in June to revisit the city ordinance passed in December, which Councilor Kenny Payne stated was “not even close to being acceptable”. After some deliberation, the council struck the part of the ordinance which counted non-voting employees as voting “no” to union representation, and moved the dates public employees could petition for an election from November – July to July – November, giving the workers the chance they needed to organize a collective bargaining vote this year.
On July 15th, 2012, the day the collective bargaining ordinance went into effect, city workers filed their petition for a recognition election, exceeding the required number in the ordinance: “Over 55% of the employees signed the petition, even though we only needed 30%,” said Roscoe Beasley, a sanitation worker and union member. After the city clerk certified the petition on July 23rd, the Muskogee city council set the recognition vote for August 9th , 2012. A successful vote will mean that Muskogee workers once again will enjoy union protection for their job security, wages and benefits, and safer working conditions.
A victory for workers in Muskogee is a victory for workers across the nation, and will set an example in the battles being fought for American public workers’ rights . To quote Dustin Williams, “We’re not just fighting for our workplace rights - we’re fighting for our children and their future. We are fighting for the very survival of the [working] class. Everyone should have the same rights and a voice.”