Labor unions and allies rally at Oklahoma state Capitol

 Members and/or supporters of labor unions rallied at the Oklahoma state Capitol today, declaring opposition to bills moving through the Legislature that would repeal compulsory collective bargaining for larger municipalities.

The focus was not only on state statutes or proposed laws. While many speakers focused on larger national union issues, the event included some pointed barbs aimed at the Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

House Bill 2406 was among the specific proposals criticized by speakers and in literature distributed at the rally.  The bill by state Rep. Steve Martin, a Bartlesville Republican, would remove a seven-year old mandate requiring municipalities with more than 35,000 residents to negotiate with unions for non-uniformed employees.

A large contingent of Democrats from both chambers of the Legislature attended the rally, held on a cool and extremely windy day on the south plaza. Sign-carrying union members and allies filled roughly two-thirds of the plaza area.

Among Democratic legislators welcoming attendees were state Sens. Jim Wilson of Tahlequah and Earl Garrison of Muskogee, as well as state Reps. Al McAffrey and Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City, and Jeannie McDaniel of Tulsa.  House Minority Leader Scott Inman of Del City also participated.

A wide variety of colorful signs were carried by people attending the rally. These expressions were the most commonly viewed: “We are One,” “Stop the War on Workers,” and “Stand up for Workers’ Rights.”

Keynote speaker at the rally was Rev. Robin Meyers of Mayflower Congregational Church.

He began his speech attacking Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Meyers contended recent events in Madison, where some pro-union laws are being reversed in the midst of a significant budget shortfall, have led to “a great awakening” of average Americans.

Meyers said America has “since Ronald Reagan, been living a myth called supply side economics.” He said the country now has “30 years of evidence that it doesn’t work.”  He attacked corporations like General Electric and Bank of America for paying “no federal taxes” this past year.  Concerning corporations, he asserted, “They play, but they do not pay.”

Meyers asserted that progressive income taxes and collective bargaining brought a better economy to America.  He assailed the Republican Party for “cutting taxes and trying to destroy unions.”  He said some hearing his speech might consider it an example of “class warfare,” but countered with this view, “Class warfare has been going on for a long time, and the rich won.”  Labor unions and supporters of unions, he said, “want to get back into the fight.”

The minister also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United,” for eroding limitations on campaign spending.

Rev. Meyers said, “We need a new workers movement in America, and let it start here in Oklahoma City.” Meyers said, “I refuse to let this country become a plutocracy, ruled by the Koch Brothers.” He encouraged the crowd, “Never give up.”

Ed Allen of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, also spoke to the crowd.  He expressed solidarity with his “brothers and sisters of the labor movement.”  He said that unions must continue to “stand up for the middle class of the United States.”  Allen said unions will fight for “a level playing field” which, he maintained, “is reached through collective bargaining.”

Allen, who leads the Oklahoma City local of AFT, pledged his efforts to “stop the radical right from achieving their goals.” He led a chant enforcing the point that if viewers want to understand who will the fight for economic fairness, they needed to “look no further” than today’s rally.

The rally was organized by Jimmy Curry, state President of the AFL-CIO.  Other union leaders involved included Clifton Ogle of the AFT. Visible unions at the rally — with banners, jackets, flags or signs – included the United Steelworkers, Communications Workers, Transport Workers, Teamsters and many others. Also visible were signs touting the (William) Brennan Society, honoring the memory of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.

While a pro-union song was sung on the Capitol Steps, Curry briefly greeted Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello, who was watching the rally and listening to speakers nearby.  Costello is a conservative Republican and frequent critic of labor union policies. In the November 2010 election, he handily defeated incumbent Commissioner Lloyd Fields, a close ally of organized labor in Oklahoma.

For purposes of comparison, the crowd today seemed a few hundred people less than the number that came to a March 15 rally sponsored by the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest union.