MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

March 15, 2013

Member sign-up slow for city union

Only 29 of 177 eligible have joined so far

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Despite overwhelming support among the city’s non-uniform employees for union representation, it appears to be taking time for organizers to sign up dues-paying members.

Of the 177 city employees eligible to join American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2465, only 29, or 16 percent, have signed membership cards. Personnel Director Kelly Epperson said the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 95 has a  91 percent membership rate, and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 57 boasts 100 percent participation.

AFSCME Local 2465 President Dustin Williams said the membership drive is progressing better than it looks, saying those efforts were delayed by two recent grievance hearings. Williams said he has another 30 cards he plans to turn in, and other employees have declared an intent to join.

“It’s not that we have only 29 members, it is just taking time to get around to all the facilities to get the cards filled out,” Williams said. “We’ve had these grievance hearings — both of those decisions were reversed — and we are having a hard time getting addresses for many of the eligible employees. The city won’t give that information out.”

Williams said there has only been one pay period during which dues were collected under the terms of the new contract, which was approved mid-January by city councilors. The contract was the first to be approved since the City Council voted in June 2011 to terminate the employee group’s collective bargaining rights.

After a year of wrangling, which included an election that produced the largest turnover of City Council members in more than 20 years, non-uniform employees fought to restore their collective bargaining rights. Those efforts culminated in August with an election for which 72 percent of the eligible employees cast ballots — more than 95 percent of the 123 ballots cast supported AFSCME representation as the exclusive bargaining agent.

“The victories at the Merit Board hearings stirred up a lot of interest, and we got some cards back,” Williams said, noting those wins resulted with one employee getting his job back and the restoration of one-day of pay for another employee who had been suspended. “I guess everybody was just waiting for us to prove ourselves.”

Matthew Jordan, a field organizer for AFSCME International who helped local supporters regroup, said it’s too early to gauge union membership at this point.

“They signed up about 30 just coming out of the gate, and then there will be another 30 that have signed up but haven’t been turned in,” Jordan said. “It has been a struggle, but they will get it right — our goal is to get it up to a hundred.”

The local membership drive began just before a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows union membership increased last year in Oklahoma. Of the 1.53 million workers on the books in 2012, 7.5 percent, or 115,000, were union members, and 9.1 percent, or 140,000, were represented by unions.

Figures for both categories represent a more than 1 percent increase from totals reported in 2011. Of the 1.46 million Oklahoma workers reporting that year, 6.4 percent, or 94,000, were union members and 7.7 percent, or 113,000, were represented by unions.

The growth in Oklahoma of union ties this past year came at a time when membership and representation nationwide declined. Union membership rates nationally fell from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012. In 1983, the first year for which there is comparable data, about 20.1 percent of American workers were union members.

Other highlights from the U.S. Department of Labor report show public-sector workers had a union membership rate of 35.9 percent. In the private sector, about 6.6 percent of the American workforce belonged to a union.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot @muskogeephoenix.com.