BY MICKEY DOLLENS
Our neighbors in Missouri have extra cause for celebration this Labor Day. After defeating a so-called “right-to-work” proposition by almost half a million votes, Missouri citizens showed us there is quite a bit of power, and pride, that comes from standing in solidarity with labor unions.
Back here in Oklahoma, we are entering an age of job insecurity. Automation is threatening traditionally steady jobs, apps like Uber and TaskRabbit are facilitating the rise of the gig economy, globalization is on a steady rise, and divisive ideological wedges seem to be separating us from our co-workers. We are also faced with massive income inequality, stagnant wages, and corporations that seem to step on workers’ rights every chance they get.
But with unions fighting for labor rights, there is still someone holding corporate interests accountable. This affects everything from ensuring workers have proper health care coverage to protecting women and minorities from wage and promotion discrimination. Perhaps most importantly, unions ensure that employees receive fair wages for their work.
The Economic Policy Institute found that union workers make 13% more than nonunion workers, on average. But the benefits of unions aren’t limited to those that join them. Wage decreases across industries occur when rates of unionization decrease. Here in Oklahoma, we passed “Right-to-work” legislation that crippled the rights of our workers. Before right-to-work, our state was seeing a rise in manufacturing jobs and even saw a trend of relocation to the state. Since the law took effect in 2001, these numbers reversed course and began to fall.
The safeguards provided by unionization will be imperative as we move into a future where automation will continue to reshape our workforce.
As Oklahomans, we should not only stand strong with our labor unions but seek ways to improve our bargaining power across industries. In countries with high rates of union memberships, unions argue across sectors to establish industry standards. Collective bargaining across entire sectors for the rights of oilfield roughnecks or teachers or steelworkers here in Oklahoma could help ensure that the working people of our state are able to provide for their families and take pride in their work.
As a teacher at U.S. Grant High School in OKC, I was a member of the American Federation of Teachers [AFT]. Nothing shows the power and importance of unions more than the walkout that occurred this past year, and AFT members along with the OEA were crucial to that walkout’s success. Teachers of our state brought real change by collectively saying enough was enough and linking arms to show their strength.
I take pride in the ability of Oklahomans to come together and help when the need arises. If our neighbor is going through a hard time we reach out, knowing our communities are stronger when we look out for each other.
This Labor Day, enjoy the lake or a hike or a dinner with the family but also remember the place unions have in our state and nation. A strong labor voice means a strong labor force. And as our state moves forward into an uncertain future, that strength will become more important than ever.
– Mickey Dollens, an OKC Democrat, represents District 93 in the Oklahoma House. A former teacher at U.S. Grant High School, Dollens is a fifth generation Oklahoman, former oilfield roughneck, graduate of Southern Methodist University, and competed internationally on the USA bobsled team. He and his wife Taylor live in South OKC with their newborn son, Dean.