Thursday, July 07, 2005

Oklahoma Law Allowing Municipal Employees to Unionize Found Unconstitutional

Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of CITY OF ENID v. PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RELATIONS BOARD. The issue in question was whether the Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act, 11 O.S.Supp.2004, §§ 51-200, et seq., was a special law prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution, Article 5, § 46. Article 5, § 46, provides in pertinent part:
The Legislature shall not, except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, pass any local or special law authorizing:
. . .
Regulating the affairs of counties, cities, towns, wards, or school districts; . . . .

The Act granted qualifying municipal employees the right to organize and choose representation for the purpose of collective bargaining and required municipal employers to recognize, negotiate and bargain with employee representatives. However, it defined municipal employers to be those municipalities with populations greater than 35,000. This limitation made the Act only applicable to eleven Oklahoma municipalities. The court held that because the Act did not apply to all cities in the state, it was a special law prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution, Article 5, § 46. The court also held that the constitutionally-offensive language is an integral part of the Act and cannot be severed. Therefore, the act is ineffective until the constitutionally-offensive language is removed by the legislature.

Class Action Against Wal-Mart in Oklahoma

Two employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and a former worker have filed a lawsuit alleging the retailer retaliated against workers who file workers' compensation claims.

In their lawsuit filed in state court Friday, Wal-Mart employees Molly Self and Tammy Mathes allege that after filing claims for on-the-job injuries, the company either reduced their hours, cut their pay or demoted them. Former employee Janna Balak claims she was forced to resign as a condition of her settlement of a workers' compensation claim.

The women are seeking class-action status for their suit. They claim many Wal-Mart employees are afraid to file workers' compensation claims for fear of retaliation. They also allege in the suit that understaffing at the stores creates an environment "where workplace injuries are inevitable."

"We think this is a companywide policy that potentially affects thousands of people," said Alex Yaffe, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City law firm that represents the women. "There are over 30,000 people employed by Wal-Mart in Oklahoma and 1.6 million nationwide. There are a ton of folks that could be affected."
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said Wednesday the company had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on the case. But she said the company has adequate systems to address workers' compensation claims and that safety is a top concern.

"Safety is paramount in every decision we make both for customers and our associates," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said she could not provide information on how many workers' compensation claims are filed against the company each year.

Self works at the Wal-Mart store in El Reno, Mathes works at a store in Moore and Balak was employed by the Moore store, according to the suit. The women are seeking damages of more than $10,000 for lost wages and benefits, lost earning capacity, humiliation and emotional distress.

The Associated Press/OKLAHOMA CITY
Associated Press Writer