The south steps of the State Capitol were a sea of red Tuesday as OPEA members gathered for a spirited—but peaceful—protest rally.
More than 250 members lobbied state lawmakers for an overdue pay raise, many wearing red shirts emblazoned with the phrase “leave us out—we’ll vote you out!”
“I think it’s great we have a basketball team coming to town; but when legislators give a tax incentive to bring them here and leave out raises for state employees, something is terribly wrong,” said Scott Barger, OPEA Deputy Director.
“This is not about anger,” Barger continued. “It’s about passion. Anger fades away but passion remains. When did basketball become more important than our state employees?”
Under a bright blue sky and the ever-present Oklahoma wind, OPEA members promised to show their lawmakers they mean business when it comes election time this fall.
But a contingency of the state’s Democratic Caucus stood with OPEA and said they are on the frontline, showing their support.
“I was a state employee for a number of years, so I know how tough it is,” said Representative Anastasia Pittman. “Our agencies and staff are suffering, and ultimately the citizens of Oklahoma will suffer. The shortage of workers in the Department of Human Services is a prime example. As elected officials we must all work together to make sure our state employees make a decent wage. We don’t need a task force to study hunger. We are promoting hunger and by not giving state employees a raise!”
Representative Al McAffrey said, “Our employees are the backbone of the state. We have asked the Governor to tap the Rainy Day Fund and help our employees make ends meet.”
Local television cameras whirred as OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley took the podium.
“The high turnover in state government costs Oklahoma taxpayers $85 million dollars a year,” Zearley said. “Our employees must train new workers, and then they leave and the revolving door process continues. We must bring wages up to market and keep our quality workers.”
Referring to the hundreds of red shirts on display, Representative Ryan Kiesel urged OPEA members to “use your time and shoe leather this fall.”
“We spent one million dollars on a DOC audit,” Kiesel said. “We’re going to spend one million dollars on a DHS audit, again to essentially tell us you are overworked and underpaid. Next we will be spending a million dollars on an audit to learn the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”
“We have put more work on you without more money,” said Representative Scott Inman.
“Many of you are overworked and underpaid. Gas prices are high; the cost of living has gone up, yet your wages remain unchanged. I urge you to storm the Capitol and let your legislators know where they stand with you.”
“Take this energy to your worksites and ultimately to the polling places,” OPEA leader Tom Dunning. “We don’t do ourselves or our clients any service by sitting on the sidelines and not coming over here.”
“You are going to make some people in this building uncomfortable wearing $1,200 dollars suits,” Barger said as the crowd dispersed to enter the Capitol. “They are not used to rubbing elbows with the working man.”
Following the rally over 300 state employees packed the House and Senate galleries where they were introduced by Representative Danny Morgan and Senator Kenneth Corn. A sergeant was overheard commenting that the gallery was packed with state employees and there was no room for anyone else.
With the end of session next week, legislators were busy in the chambers discussing bills. State employees, wearing red shirts, made business unpleasant for corporate lobbyists as they crowded the House and Senate lobbies to call their legislators out and hold them accountable for the crisis in state government.
“With two successful lobby days in one year, OPEA is sending a message to legislators that we are holding them responsible for state employee pay, staffing and work environment,” said Zearley. “We must follow through during campaign season and at the polls in the fall.”
Legislators attending the Red Shirt Rally included Representatives Terry Harrison, Scott Inman, Ryan Kiesel, Wallace Collins, Jerry McPeak, Ed Cannaday, R.C. Pruett, Eric Proctor, Scott Bighorse, Neil Brannon, Al McAffrey, Chuck Hoskin, and Anastasia Pittman.