Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello’s use of anti-worker political rhetoric and his independent, anti-union and anti-public employee website, Parity in Oklahoma, raises the question whether an elected official can essentially work against the historical and constitutional mandates of a state office.
Costello referred to public employees as “feral hogs” in a recent speech, which has drawn widespread criticism from the Oklahoma Democratic Party, union officials, state employees and teachers. His website, which is not state funded but uses his name and title prominently, argues state and local governments should not collect union dues from paychecks and criticizes the retirement benefits of some state employees. It also supposedly points out the “perks” of public employees and criticizes state merit rules that “actually reward bad employee behavior.”
Certainly, Costello, a Republican, has every right to express his political opinions, which are no doubt shared by many Oklahomans, but his particular office was established to protect workers, not criticize them. His office was also formed through input by unions, which gives it a historical obligation to protect and even foster workers’ rights, not take them away.
Costello might argue that his comments and website are not necessarily official actions of his office, but it’s difficult to separate the rhetoric from his office’s day-to-day operation. What if the state health commissioner, using his name and title prominently, created an independent website urging people to drink alcoholic beverages and to eat unhealthy foods? Would that disconnection be acceptable? What if the state schools superintendents created a site that urged students to drop out of school?
The Oklahoma Department of Labor’s website notes this historical fact:
The Oklahoma Department of Labor was created by the Oklahoma Constitution in 1907. In August of that year, delegates from the Twin-Territorial Federation of Labor, the State Farmers’ Union and the Railroad Brotherhoods met in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to formulate a list of demands for the upcoming constitutional convention. One demand called for the establishment of a State Labor Department.
Consequently, when the new state constitution was ratified by the delegates to the constitutional convention in 1907, the Oklahoma Department of Labor was created. Since its inception, the department has functioned continuously under many different commissioners and governors.
The site also notes the commissioner’s responsibilities:
The Commissioner of Labor is responsible for the enforcement of those labor laws that promote fairness and equity in the workforce, including state wage laws, workers’ compensation compliance, state OSHA laws for public employers, asbestos compliance, child labor laws and various other duties.
Given the office’s constitutional and historical mandate, the labor commissioner should at the very least have a neutral working relationship with union members in Oklahoma, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. At its recent convention, the Oklahoma AFL-CIO passed a resolution that stated the organization has no confidence in Costello. Some union members want him to resign and argue he’s not fulfilling the mission of his office.
Costello strongly criticized one aspect of the resolution, but he didn’t fully address the point that some people argue his office has a mandate to essentially promote at least some of the achievements of unions, whether he likes it or not.
It does appear, though, that Costello sees his political mission in a larger, national perspective. In a response to the criticism, according to NewsOK.com, he issued a statement that argued:
. . . union militants in Wisconsin last spring and the hard left protest against capitalism in New York today have made their way to Oklahoma. The minions of the hard left have only one belief in common, a loathing of capitalism and a loving of (Democratic President Barack) Obama’s re-election prospects.
But his office has no direct connection to promoting capitalism or promoting any particular presidential candidate. His office was established to protect Oklahoma workers.