Commissioner Costello determined to let union cats out of the bag

Oklahoma’s labor commissioner wants to free the state from collecting public union and employee association dues.

Labor Commissioner Mark Costello  said the practice makes Oklahoma the “bagman” for public unions to fund potentially budget-sucking political agendas, adding the practice simply makes it easier for unions to bleed taxpayers for ever-increasing costs.

Costello said unions should collect their own dues.

It’s a move that’s gaining ground in other states where public-sector union membership is plummeting.

Last year, after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker  and the Wisconsin Legislature passed collective bargaining reform that ended compulsory union dues through automatic payroll deductions, the membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee plunged by more than 50 percent.

It’s no secret the roughly 19,000-member Oklahoma Education Association, the state affiliate of the liberal National Education Association, is the main target here. In last year’s reform efforts, legislators attempted to exclude virtually every group from the measure except the OEA.

Ultimately, it failed Oklahoma’s super-majority Republican-controlled Legislature.

“It was disappointing more than surprising,” Costello said of last year’s unsuccessful push. “The obvious conflict is (that) we’re collecting dues and money that is used for political activity to lobby political candidates creates an impediment.

“If you’re taking money from people on the other side of the table that are making contributions to you, that can alter your behavior,” he said. “But as long as I’m in elected office, I’m going to advocate that the state stop being the bagman for the union bosses.”

A prime example was Oklahoma Education Association and NEA’s use of nearly $4 million from the dues to promote an increase in common education appropriations — about $850 million annually more than the $2.3 it gets billion now.

State AFL-CIO president Jim Curry  said he doesn’t want to continue the paycheck protection battle, preferring instead to find common ground with policymakers.

“The labor commissioner is trying to pick a fight when all of us are trying to work together,” said Curry, whose group represents roughly 100,000 private and public sector union members.

“We already had the Right to Work fight 11 years ago and it was very divisive,” he said. “We lost. So nobody has to join a union if they don’t want to. We have come together since then and tried to work together in this state.”

Curry said the union gladly would pay the state’s cost for collecting the union dues, but he said the state couldn’t pin down the amount.

“On the 11th anniversary of passage of Right to Work this month, I personally went to Tulsa and handed Republican Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. a check for $25,000 to help with Vision 2 in Tulsa,” he said referring to a collection of economic improvement projects in the state’s second largest city.

American Federation of Teachers President Ed Allen also said he wants to find a more collaborative posture among dissenting sides.

“I think it’s kind of ironic for the labor commissioner, who really is supposed to be representing a department to protect working Oklahomans to be doing this,” Allen said. “He ought to be over at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. We know (paycheck protection is) going to come back. What he’s doing is an assault on school reform.”

Allen said his local union affiliate last year donated more money to Republicans than to Democrats, though he blasted Republican officeholders.

“They (Republicans) aren’t all ogres,” he said. “It shouldn’t be all about power. Times have changed. It’s more of a collaborative time now. Trying to bully your way around just isn’t going to work. If you become partners you’re going to get better outcomes.”

may contact Stacy
at, and follow us on
Twitter: @capitolbeatok.