BY MATTHEW JORDAN
In spring 2011, city officials in Muskogee were hard at work attempting to privatize their wastewater treatment plant. When the plant workers [and members of AFSCME Local 2465] learned that privatization would mean that half of them would lose their jobs, they mobilized.
The employees knew that they could manage the city’s wastewater plant better than an outside management company from halfway around the world, so they wrote their own “Request for Proposal” [RFP].
As John Reeves, a plant operator at the water facility and member of Local 2465 put it, “The bid from Veolia, the French water management company, was $800,000 more than our RFP. Had the city adopted our plan, taxpayers would have saved $200,000.”
However, when employees shared their cost-saving plan with Muskogee City Manager Greg Buckley, he unfortunately chose to bury it. Not to be deterred, employees presented their RFP to a packed City Council and voiced opposition to outsourcing on economic grounds.
“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, an aquatics technician in parks and recreation and Local 2465 member.
The city council stopped the outsourcing attempt, but the city manager refused to implement the workers cost-saving plan.
When Oklahoma’s Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act was repealed, Buckley saw his opportunity to attack worker rights by pressing an unwitting City Council into denying recognition of the union and refusing renewal of their collective bargaining agreement.
Angered by the arrogance of the city manager, employees discovered their newfound power through their union. They realized the value of the services they provide to the city; they are the people working hard to keep Muskogee’s streets and parks safe, bring clean water to Muskogee households, and remove city wastes every day. They make Muskogee happen.
Emboldened by their success at stopping the wastewater privatization attempt, they knew they had to go further. They spoke out against letting anyone take away their rights and freedoms.
They did something that they had never done before: AFSCME members united with their sisters and brothers in the fire and police departments, war veterans, ministers through the NAACP, and members of the Muskogee County Democratic Party.
Together, they sought out and recruited City Council candidates that supported public employees’ right to organize. They secured a pro-union majority on the City Council when Muskogee residents elected three of their candidates!
In June, the coalition celebrated another hard-won victory when City Council member Kenny Payne championed an ordinance that returned collective bargaining [meaning having a voice at their own workplace] to city workers.
Members also got to work proving that the majority of city employees wanted to restore their rights and be recognized by the city, after anti-union council members claimed that the majority of city workers were against having a union.
Co-workers saw their union brothers and sisters standing up for them and got involved, too. They collected signatures from a whopping 66% of the city employees urging council members to pass the collective bargaining ordinance.
The ordinance restoring collective bargaining rights to city workers took effect on July 15. On that day, union members filed for a recognition election – recognition that was stripped away from employees a year earlier.
“Over 55% of the employees signed the petition, even though we only needed 30%,” said Roscoe Beasley, an employee from the sanitation department and member of Local 2465.
The city clerk certified the recognition petition and on July 23. The City Council set the recognition election for Aug. 9.
“We have looked forward to this election for months. Nearly all employees want the union. The vote for recognition is our chance to be heard,” said Dan Hurd, a building inspector with the city of Muskogee.
With recognition, the AFSCME leadership will be empowered to negotiate with the city for a new collective bargaining agreement that will protect wages and benefits and ensures safe working conditions.
The victory in Muskogee proves that even in anti-union or “right-to-work-for-less” states, employees can pull together with the community and defeat those who would do harm to Oklahoma families.
As Dustin Williams put it, “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 middle class. Everyone should have the same rights and a voice.”
– Matthew Jordan is Oklahoma and Texas field representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He lives in Oklahoma City.