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Oklahoma bill on city workers draws union criticism

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - The sponsor of a bill to end collective bargaining for non-uniformed public workers in nine medium-sized Oklahoma cities said Thursday his measure is not part of an organized attack on labor unions.

"I've been planning this since 2005," said Oklahoma state Representative Steve Martin, a Republican.

Labor leaders, however, view the move as the latest wrinkle in what they call a nationwide effort to undermine organized labor that has roiled workers in Wisconsin and other states.

The Oklahoma bill, passed by the House late Wednesday night by a 59-38 vote, would repeal a 2004 state law that requires collective bargaining for non-uniformed workers in cities with a population of 35,000 or more.

City workers who would be affected by the bill include sanitation workers, 911 operators, mechanics, animal welfare workers, secretaries and street and water department workers.

The proposed repeal would not affect Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman or Muskogee because those cities instituted collective bargaining before the 2004 law.

That law, passed by a Democrat-dominated Legislature and signed by a Democratic governor, has caused some cities "tremendous problems" in developing employment policies and higher labor costs, Martin said.

"This system is not working for them," he said.

Republicans now control both houses of the Oklahoma Legislature as well as the governorship, but union leader William Briles said he still hopes someone will listen to labor's viewpoint when the state Senate takes up the bill.

"We are not like other unions," said Briles, president of AFSCME Local 2406, which represents workers in Midwest City and Moore, who would be affected by the legislation.

"We don't strike. We have binding arbitration only on job issues like wrongful terminations, suspensions, minor things like that."

Bartlesville, Martin's home town, has spent $30,000 over the past year negotiating its first contract with the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees, but the sides remain at an impasse.

Julie Daniels, who served as mayor and council member in Bartlesville from 2001 to 2009, said the repeal of collective bargaining would be "a great victory for the taxpayers" because local voters are not given a voice in negotiating city workers' pay.

The 2004 law, she said, unfairly singled out medium-sized, fast-growing cities for organized labor.

In Oklahoma, a right-to-work state in which workers are not required to join a union to hold a job, a majority vote is required before municipal workers can be represented by a union and engage in collective bargaining.

Under the law that faces repeal, city workers vote their union preference via the "card check" method rather than a secret ballot, which opponents say subjects workers to undue pressure to favor the union.

AFSCME workers plan to rally at the state Capitol on April 4 to protest the proposed change.

"People are very quick to talk about taking away workers' rights," Martin said. "But these are just a bunch of rules that were passed arbitrarily seven years ago."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)

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