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Can it happen here?


Oklahoma could be poised for a fight over unions.

Jason Reese March 2nd, 2011

Over the past few weeks, we have seen unrest spread throughout the Midwest. From Ohio to Wisconsin, public employees are taking to the street to protest much-delayed belt-tightening in those cash-strapped states. As we watch these events unfold, one cannot help but wonder if the Sooner State could experience the same.

Truth be told, the ingredients are here. A new Republican majority, in charge of all the levers of lawmaking, has made a lot of noise about restoring fiscal sanity. In the meantime, Oklahoma’s Teachers Retirement Fund has a $10 billion unfunded liability. If and when the new majority addresses this issue, the teachers’ unions are bound to cry foul.

Truth be told, the ingredients are here.

The only viable answer is to convert the pension from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system, as so many private industries already have. Do not expect the union bosses to let this go lightly; they have made long careers feathering their own beds while drying up the stream of funds to younger teachers and their classrooms.

The root of the problem lies in the granting of collective bargaining rights to public unions in the first place. Roughly half of Oklahoma’s public schools have collective bargaining “rights” (interestingly enough, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association does not). This flies in the very face of the concept of a republic. Legislatures are vested with the power of the purse, not unions. Therefore, the correct avenue for public union collective bargaining is the ballot box.

Notice, this does not apply to private sector unions. I support their right to exist and wish them well in their endeavors unless they, alongside imprudent managers, break great American companies like General Motors Co. and then ask for a bailout.

The Legislature should move immediately to end collective bargaining with any entity that receives state funds. This will not only help restore fiscal balance, but will reassert the ability of the people to direct their tax money, rather than backroom deals carving up the pie.

So, who will win this fight if it comes? Oklahoma has been a conservative state for decades and recent battles over “right-to-work” and MAPS 3 have not altered the landscape in a pro-union direction. If anything, the current political climate — arising from the realization that we cannot borrow and spend our way to prosperity — confirms Oklahoma’s instincts.

If traditional bastions of labor power such as Ohio and Wisconsin can turn, then Oklahoma is easy to call.

The situation is murkier when you bring teachers into the mix. Americans rightfully have a sentimental attachment to their teachers. The key is for policy leaders to show two things: 1) that teachers, especially younger ones, benefit from a restructured deal, rather than the state going bankrupt; and 2) that the teachers’ unions are the primary entity standing in the way of classroom excellence.

The time is right for the new majority to show its mettle. As this fight commences, I simply hope they remember that for every shouter that takes to the streets, there are dozens of voters who stay home (Someone once referred to them as the “silent majority.”) and reward brave lawmakers on Election Day.

Reese, a recent Republican candidate for labor commissioner, is an attorney in downtown Oklahoma City.

 
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