Oklahoma Workers Regain AFSCME Union Membership
AFSCME Local 2465 Dustin Williams is an aquatics technician in Muskogee, Okla. (Photo by Casey Langston)
On Friday, city workers in Muskogee, Okla., voted by an overwhelming margin of 95 percent to re-elect AFSCME Local 2465 as their union. These workers lost their union after politicians in the state legislature passed an anti-collective bargaining bill last spring. Dustin Williams is an aquatics technician in the Muskogee Parks and Recreation Department and one of the members of AFSCME Local 2465 who led the fight to win back their union.
I have a message to my fellow public service workers across the country, especially the AFSCME members who have had their basic American rights stolen from them by anti-worker politicians. Don’t give up on standing up for yourself and your co-workers.
Here is my story.
Two years ago, I would have never imagined calling myself a union activist. I have worked for the City of Muskogee for 10 years — first at the pollution control plant and now as an aquatics technician. My co-workers and I have always had a union, AFSCME Local 2465. But not many of us were actively involved and even fewer of us knew the history of how we struggled to win our union.
I was one of these individuals. I took for granted that I got my paycheck on time, that I got decent wages to support my family and that managers couldn’t change the rules on a whim.
What I didn’t know was that over 35 years ago, the Muskogee city employees before me had to fight to win the most basic job protections and dignity. Their efforts to form our union transformed our jobs. Over the years, the city employees before me built on these gains and secured them in a strong contract that I was benefitting from.
Two years ago, I was also probably like you and never thought that a wave of politicians would attack public employees and our union rights. Why attack us? We didn’t cause this country’s financial mess and we’re just trying to take care of our families like everyone else.
But it happened. And in Oklahoma, these anti-worker politicians seized an opportunity to strip away the collective bargaining rights of city workers like me. Overnight, our union was gone. The contract protecting our rights and wages — gone.
It was around this time when I heard rumblings that the city wanted to privatize the pollution control plant where I worked. They wanted to hand over control of these services to a private company.
I’ll be honest, at first I just wanted to save my job. So I started talking to my co-workers and we soon realized that something was seriously wrong with the city’s plan. Their plan would have resulted in fewer workers and shoddy services, and cost taxpayers more. My co-workers and I proved it and successfully stopped the privatization scheme when we showed that it would cost $200,000 more.
We were empowered by this victory. We won it by standing up and fighting together. This experience reminded us of our collective power. We knew we needed our union back to keep protecting our paychecks and rights.
So we worked like hell. We collected signatures from more than two-thirds of the employees to prove that we wanted our union back. And over the next several months, we got active to make sure that the people we elected to the City Council would restore the rights of working people. We reached out in unprecedented ways to the community, building relationships and sharing our stories. We knocked on doors and called our friends. We even marched in a parade.
Our hard work paid off when a pro-worker City Council voted to restore our collective bargaining rights this summer. And last week, we had the chance to vote ourselves. An overwhelming 95 percent of us voted yes for our AFSCME union. Even I was surprised when 124 out of 168 of my co-workers (71 percent) showed up to cast their votes.
I know not all of us will win back our rights this quickly. Some of these struggles might last a decade. But we won’t win them back ever if we don’t start by doing something today. Those city workers who came before me? Nothing was given to them out of the goodness of some millionaire’s heart. They fought for it and we have to fight for it today.
We’re not just fighting for us. We’re fighting for our children and your children. Everyone should have the same rights and a voice.