The Journal Record: “Oklahoma Senate bill would repeal binding arbitration…”

The Journal Record covers Senator Holt’s binding arbitration bill below.   Some points of clarification for after you’ve read the article: Senator Holt’s bill does not effect any of the statutes that govern AFSCME (the municipal employee union), who don’t even have binding arbitration in their negotiations.  And public safety officers are barred from striking.   The union spokesman’s comments in the article are basically irrelevant to the legislation at hand.

Oklahoma Senate bill would repeal binding arbitration clause in municipal contracts

by M. Scott Carter (January 25, 2010)
The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — Oklahoma’s cities and towns wouldn’t be required to use binding arbitration in employee wage negotiations under legislation filed by a freshman state senator.

State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, said he’s introduced a bill to repeal the system known as binding arbitration. Holt said Senate Bill 826 would restore taxpayer control and fiscal responsibility for local spending decisions by repealing the binding arbitration clause in municipal contracts.

“Since its enactment in 1994 through labor union lobbying, binding arbitration has taken the power to make spending decisions away from Oklahoma taxpayers and placed it in the hands of unaccountable out-of-state attorneys,” he said. “Not surprisingly, a bad system has created bad results – tax increases, more burdens on pension systems, and cutbacks in core services, including public safety.”

Under the binding arbitration system, when negotiations stall between local governments and labor unions, the negotiations are turned over to a panel of arbitrators. The deciding arbitrator chooses from the two positions, and any decision in favor of the labor union is legally binding unless an election is called and voters disapprove.

Holt said the deciding arbitrator was almost always an out-of-state attorney submitted by the federal government.

“Despite routine dissatisfaction with such rulings, the calling of an election has not emerged as a practical option in the 17 years since enactment, leaving the arbitrator’s ruling as the final word,” he said.

Union officials said they opposed the bill, calling it a reaction to a problem that didn’t exist.

“In his press release the author indicated that this will free up cities from financial problems,” said James Moore, a spokesman for the state’s municipal employees union. “But what’s not said is that the binding arbitration laws have been with us for 40 years. And if you look at the progress the cities of this state have made, it’s been remarkable.”

Moore, who represents Local 2406 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union, said at its core, collective bargaining was simply a procedure.

“Many industries – including the financial services and construction industries – have used binding arbitration laws for decades,” he said. “The advantage is that you keep the disputes out of court and the procedures are shorter. The process has been on the books for years and it’s worked well.”

Holt countered that his bill returns the power of the purse to the taxpayers of Oklahoma by repealing binding arbitration. In lieu of that process, parties will continue negotiating, but taxpayers will never be forced to accept spending increases mandated by an arbitrator, he said in a media release about the measure.

Moore said the claim that binding arbitration had caused the financial problems of Oklahoma cities was not reality.

“To say now, in 2011, that cities wouldn’t have financial troubles if it weren’t for binding arbitration is really not reality,” he said. “Collective bargaining and arbitration haven’t been a drag. Everyone knows that the state and the country’s financial problems were caused by Wall Street and the mortgage crisis; it had nothing to do with police and fire contracts.”

Holt, Moore said, was trying to take advantage of the state’s current problems.

“It’s just an opportunistic kind of approach,” he said.

Holt said much has changed since binding arbitration became law and now that Republicans control the governor’s office and the Legislature.

“The voters of Oklahoma delivered a reminder this past election that the citizens are in charge of how their tax dollars are spent,” he said. “At the state level, we would never allow an attorney from Texas to tell Oklahomans how we must spend our money and then leave us with the bill – but that is exactly what’s happened at the local level for 17 years.”

Moore countered that the binding arbitration system was a trade-off for strikes.

“The law came into being at a time in the 1970s when many places were seeing those strikes,” he said. “Here, the Legislature and the governor said let’s get ahead of the curve and if the law was repealed it would only be a matter of time before you started seeing strikes again.”

State lawmakers will review SB 826 when the Oklahoma Legislature returns to the state Capitol on Feb. 7.

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