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Oklahoma again takes on the right-to-work issue

By RON JENKINS - The Associated Press
Date: 06/26/01 22:15

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Route to economic salvation or flagrant union busting -- those are the polarized shouts as Oklahoma, still trying to shed its Dust Bowl image and boost its economy, revisits a divisive issue known as "right to work."

Voters will decide whether Oklahoma is the 22nd state -- and the first since 1986 -- to ban labor contracts that require employees to pay union dues.

With less than 9 percent of its workers unionized, Oklahoma might seem an unlikely place for a right-to-work fight, but Gov. Frank Keating has been pushing the issue since he took office in 1995.

"I have fathered this, mothered this, nurtured this from the first coo," he said. "If this fails, it would be disastrous."

Right-to-work forces hope an election victory Sept. 25 will boost efforts to pass similar laws in Colorado, Kentucky, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Montana, said Barry Kelly, spokesman for the National Right-to-Work Committee in Springfield, Va.

In the Kansas City area, right to work hasn't been a big issue for several years, although Kansas is a right-to-work state and Missouri is not. A referendum to make Missouri the same as Kansas failed in 1978.

Gary Sage, president of business development for the Economic Development Corp. in Kansas City, said right to work usually isn't a factor when companies look to relocate in the Kansas City area.

Sage said a study he did years ago indicated that the percentages of unionized workers in the metropolitan area did not differ vastly between Missouri and Kansas.

Organizations that formed in the 1980s to harbor better area labor-management relations also helped make right to work less of a consideration, Sage said.

"Employers and unions realized that in economic development issues, they both can benefit," he said.

In Oklahoma, Keating contends that many companies avoid his state in favor of Texas and other nearby states that have right-to-work laws. He contends the state needs a right-to-work law to compete.

The governor, however, can't point to any specific economic snubs for Oklahoma because of right to work.

Opponents say a variety of factors unrelated to labor unions have limited manufacturing in Oklahoma, among them the state's traditional dependence on oil and cattle and enduring problems with its educational system.

"We have had virtually a Third World economy, based on selling raw materials," said state Sen. Keith Leftwich, an Oklahoma City Democrat.

Critics say the proposed ban on mandatory union dues mainly would attract companies that pay low wages. U.S. Labor Department statistics show that 18 of the top 20 states in personal income do not have right-to-work laws, while six of the bottom 10 states in income growth do.

Alexander Holmes, an economist at the University of Oklahoma, said numerous studies agree that one of the best things the state can do to improve its economy is to improve its schools.

"That's where the culture of the people is critically important," he said. "They need to make sacrifices for future generations without regard to their own betterment."

Union members booed Keating, a Republican, when he mentioned right to work during his State of the State speech in February at the beginning of this year's legislative session. Later in the session, 2,000 union members rallied against it.

But legislators handed Keating a big victory when they put the issue on the ballot. When Oklahoma last voted on the issue in 1964, it failed by less than 25,000 votes.

Many of the state's 124,000 union members are emotional in their opposition. They fear a loss in bargaining power and declining union membership if the constitutional referendum is adopted.

Stickers on motorized carts at the local General Motors plant say, "Right to work is a rip-off." The same slogan appears on bus benches and T-shirts worn around town by union members.

"Right to work is directed at the unions to bust them up, but it's going to affect everyone in the state," said Monnie Hutson, vice president of Local 2021 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Oklahoma ranks 43rd in the country in wages. Its workers earn 79 percent of the national average, down about a percentage point from a year ago.

The advertising battle has not yet begun, and many people are unfamiliar with the issue. The response from Linda Vaughn, a state government employee, was typical of people asked at random about right to work.

"I think it's a good deal -- everybody should go to work, make a living somehow," she said, sipping a soft drink inside a suburban Oklahoma City mall.

Jimmy Curry, state president of the AFL-CIO, said only about half of his members work under contracts forcing them to pay dues. Included are an American Airlines plant in Tulsa, the state's largest manufacturing facility, and a General Motors factory in Oklahoma City.

Some workers resent mandatory dues. "It's just a waste of money," said retiree Bob Jones, who paid union dues for years as a civilian worker at Tinker Air Force Base.

Idaho was the last state to approve a right-to-work law. Voters ratified it in November 1986 after a $3 million campaign.

The Star's Randolph Heaster contributed to this report.

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