Commentary: Workers are key part of Oklahoma’s past and future

Labor leaders helped shape state’s foundation

September 3, 2023 1:00 pm

Oklahoma’s motto Labor Omnia Vincit is prominently displayed on the state seal. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

The annual celebration of Labor Day in Oklahoma is coming again. The summer heat is about to come to an end, and the State Fair is not far away. 

Most kids are either back in school, or will be, and most folks look forward to a three-day holiday at the end of a grueling summer that involves cookouts, that last dip in the pool and the smell of fall in the air.

But, I don’t want people to forget why we celebrate this holiday, what it means to working families across Oklahoma, and the rich history that labor has in Oklahoma.

In the 1880s, local miners joined the Knights of Labor. Then after 1898, they joined the United Mine Workers of America established in what was known as Indian Territory. 

Strikes by the mine workers for better working conditions in 1894 were met with fierce resistance from their employers. Employees were evicted from their homes and deported from Indian Territory by federal troops. By 1903, the miner’s union was recognized by the mine operators, and for the next 20 years all miners belonged to the union.

When the Oklahoma Constitution was written in 1907, Peter Hanraty, president of the Mine Workers, was selected convention vice president. The Constitution included provisions such as a prohibition against child labor, a commissioner of labor and an initiative petition process.

When the convention completed its task, the pen used to sign the document was presented to Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor.

Oklahoma’s new state motto — Labor Omnia Vincit, or “Work conquers all” — was based on a phrase Gompers liked to use.

The only Labor Day Parade in Oklahoma this year will be in downtown Henryetta. It is a tradition that dates back to statehood. The four-day celebration dates back to the coal mining days.

Today labor in Oklahoma faces many new challenges. Several Oklahoma Starbucks stores have voted to form a union. They have had their vote certified by the national Labor Relations Board, but employees in Oklahoma and elsewhere allege they’ve faced retaliation after unionizing.   

Workers across the nation and Oklahoma lost their jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Unemployment rates soared. The record number of unemployment claims caused Oklahoma’s outdated computer system to become overloaded. It melted down. 

Employers demanded that workers work in unhealthy conditions. Some so-called essential workers faced long hours, unsafe conditions and mandatory overtime. 

When the pandemic finally started to wane, the Oklahoma Legislature in their infinite wisdom decided to cut unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 16 weeks. The rationale was that there were too many workers that didn’t want to work and would rather take a fraction of what they were making to sit at home on the couch.

There is nothing that the Oklahoma worker cannot fix, service, manufacture, drive or fly, but they should be included and have a voice at the table about workforce demands.

Workers understand day care needs, transportation struggles, the need to upgrade skills, work schedule issues and how to increase productivity.

It’s pretty basic. The worker’s job is to help his employer make as much money as they can, and the employee should be able to share in those profits, as a partner together.

Wouldn’t it be a great incentive to attract out-of-state companies if Oklahoma could point to the great labor-management relationship in Oklahoma, and how we all work together?

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Jimmy Curry
Jimmy Curry

Jimmy Curry is president of Oklahoma AFL-CIO. He's served in that role since 1997. Curry has also been a member of the Transport Workers Union Local 514 of Tulsa for over 30 years.