OK Supreme Court Upholds Municipal Employee Bargaining Law

Article excerpt

In a rare development, the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed itself, upholding a state law that authorizes collective bargaining for municipal employees in cities with populations greater than 35,000.

We hold that the act is a general law of statewide concern that contains a proper and legitimate classification of municipalities with a population greater than 35,000, the majority wrote in a per curiam opinion not attributed to a specific justice.

Challenged by several cities, including Enid, Broken Arrow and Lawton among others, the 2004 law affects only 11 municipalities.

An official with the Oklahoma Municipal League, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said member cities have been notified that they must comply with the law immediately.

Tuesday's decision involved the city of Enid, which had filed a legal action against the state Public Employees Relations Board and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The state board processes city employees' applications for collective bargaining under the act. AFSCME is a labor organization that represents municipal workers. AFSCME had filed an application with the board to represent Enid city employees.

The classification remains fluid, the majority wrote. When municipalities reach the requisite number of residents, the act applies.

Mark Stodghill, president of Tulsa AFSCME Local 1180, said he is happy with the court's new ruling.

It's going to have a positive effect on city government and the employees' rights, said Stodghill. I'm very pleased that the employees will have the choice now, for municipal governments, to be able to join a union if they so desire, in a democratic process that allows them to have their voice heard.

Last July, by a 5-4 vote, the court held the Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act to be an unconstitutional special law due to the population requirement. At the time, the majority said laws regulating city affairs must be general statutes affecting all municipalities equally. A district court had earlier found the 35,000 population figure to be arbitrary and held the act to be a special law in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.

Tuesday's ruling was also 5-4, with Justice James Winchester siding with the new majority. Winchester had joined in the previous opinion that struck down the law.

The majority opinion states that the act grants the same privileges to all municipalities of the same class and manifests uniform application to all class members.

The court said such acts need not affect every city in the state, but must apply equally to all classes similarly situated, and apply to like conditions and subjects.

The court cited evidence from experts outlining reasons why collective bargaining works better for larger cities than for smaller municipalities, including differences in intricacy of management and personnel structures, numbers of employees, and budgets.

State Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, principal author of the bargaining law, said he is pleased with the ruling. …