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Hundreds of labor union members and their supporters rallied outside the Oklahoma Capitol on Monday, urging lawmakers to defeat legislation that they claim is anti-union and would weaken bargaining and employment rights for public employees.
Chanting "union power" and "workers unite," about 400 members of various unions gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.
Speakers invoked the memory of King's life and work as they spoke to the crowd and asked lawmakers to reject measures that would impact state worker pensions and the collective bargaining rights of some municipal workers. Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, said similar rallies were held in all 50 states and some foreign countries.
"Let us not let his death be in vain," said Shannon Nealy, a 911 dispatcher in Oklahoma City and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Nealy said King ignored death threats when he traveled to Memphis to work for better salaries and working conditions for city sanitation workers represented by AFSCME.
"Human rights tower over all other considerations, even death itself," Nealy said flanked by almost a dozen other AFSCME employees.
Union members in the crowd held signs that read "We Are One" and "Stop the War on Workers" as they faced a cold and gusty wind to listen to labor leaders.
"I think the unions are kind of getting a raw deal," said David Gwinn of Edmond, a retired higher education employee. Gwinn said he is not a union member but is concerned about legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for municipal workers in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and other cities.
"I think collective bargaining is a part of American values," Gwinn said.
Lawmakers also are considering legislation that would end an appellate procedure for fired teachers known as trial de novo and change the way binding arbitration is handled during contract disputes between cities and fire and police personnel. The various labor bills are making their way through the House and Senate, each plan having been approved in at least one chamber.
Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, who along with Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and GOP legislative leaders support the legislation, attended the rally but said he was not invited to speak. Costello, who took office in January, said public health care and pension plans are more generously funded than in the private sector.
"We need to have parity between the public and private sector," he said.
He also said was concerned about the "class warfare rhetoric."
"I don't think it's helpful," Costello said as the rally ended. "We need to get out of the silos of our self-interest."
David Eslick of Tulsa, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wore a pin that read "Workers' Rights are Human Rights" and said he was concerned about the anti-union mood of lawmakers in Oklahoma and other states, including Wisconsin, where controversial legislation was approved to strip most state workers of their union rights. A judge has temporarily put the law on hold.
"If they bust the unions, then everybody's going to be working for $5 an hour. And there won't be anything you can do about it," Eslick said.
Raanon Adams of the Lawton Fire Department told the crowd that the proposed Oklahoma legislation would force public workers to pay for the dramatic reduction in state revenue that followed the deep recession that began in 2008, though workers were not to blame. Oklahoma is facing a projected $500 million budget hole in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"Wall Street bandits caused the great recession," said the Rev. Robin Meyers of the Mayflower Congressional Church in Oklahoma City. "Class warfare has been going on for a long time, and the rich won."