Court Upholds Oklahoma Collective Bargaining Law

In 2004, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the “Oklahoma Municipal Employee Collective Bargaining Act.” The Act defines municipal employers as municipalities with populations greater than 35,000. As such, the Act currently applies to 11 municipalities in Oklahoma. As municipalities grow in size and pass the 35,000 population threshold, the Act will apply to them as well.

The City of Enid, Oklahoma filed a challenge to the Act, contending that it was a “special law” under the Oklahoma constitution. “Special laws” are generally prohibited, whereas “general laws” of broad applicability are permissible. A trial court upheld the City’s challenge, and issued an injunction forbidding the enforcement of the Act. Oklahoma’s Public Employees Relations Board appealed the trial Court’s ruling. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, upheld the constitutionality of the Act.

The City argued that the Act’s 35,000 population threshold by definition meant that the Act was a “special law” that applied to only certain entities. The Court noted that “not all classification in proportion to population is prohibited. Size may be an important factor in any particular classification scheme based on population. This Court has long recognized that cities having a larger population may have problems much different from less populated counties, insofar as many topics of legislation are concerned.”

In the Court’s eyes, the question was whether the “classification” – the 35,000 population threshold – was arbitrary and capricious. The Court concluded that the Act was not arbitrary or capricious. Instead, the Court found there to be a significant basis for the population distinction drawn by the Act, including the fact that (1) smaller municipalities typically have fewer layers of management, and employees thus have a greater opportunity to deal with management directly; (2) smaller municipalities have fewer necessary resources to effectively engage in collective bargaining; (3) smaller municipalities have smaller budgets, creating special pressure to oppose collective bargaining and avoid demands for higher wages; and (4) larger municipalities are more likely to have personnel departments and legal staff at their disposal to facilitate the negotiations process.

The City also challenged the Act under the “home rule” provision of the Oklahoma constitution, which allows charter cities autonomous self governments under the home rule doctrine. The Court noted that the test of whether or not a statute impermissibly interferes with the home rule rights of a municipality “is resolved by determining if the Act relates to purely a matter of municipal and local concern or if it involves matters of the State at large, or affects its people generally.” The Court found that the Collective Bargaining Act had statewide impacts and that the promotion of “orderly and constructive collective bargaining between municipal employers and their employees is a matter of public policy.”

The Court’s decision followed a series of earlier decisions by it upholding collective bargaining laws applying to a limited number of police and fire employers.

City of Enid v. Public Employee Relations Board, 2006 WL 625834 (Okla. 2006).

This article appears in the May 2006 issue