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RIGHT-to-work movement reborn in Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Some view it as a way to economic salvation, others as mere union busting.

Oklahoma, still trying to shed its Dust Bowl image and boost a sagging economy, revisits a divisive issue known as ``right to work'' in a Sept. 25 election.

Voters will decide whether Oklahoma should become the 22nd state in the country to ban labor contracts requiring employees to pay union dues, and the first state to enact such a law since 1986.

Right-to-work forces could use an election victory in Oklahoma as a springboard for similar efforts in other states.

With less than 9 percent of its workforce unionized, Oklahoma might seem an unlikely place for a rebirth of the right-to-work movement, but this has been Gov. Frank Keating's priority since taking office in 1995. He was heckled when he proposed it in his first inaugural speech.

``I have fathered this, mothered this, nurtured this from the first coo,'' he says.

Keating claims companies shy away from Oklahoma in favor of Texas and other nearby states that have right-to-work laws.

``If this fails, it would be disastrous,'' Keating says.

Union members booed the Republican governor 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 right to work.

Legislators handed Keating and business interests a major victory when they put the issue on the ballot.

Supporters say the lack of a right-to-work law has hurt Oklahoma's attempts to recover from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the oil bust of the mid-1980s.

Keating contends Oklahoma lost out on the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the northern industrial states to the South after World War II and needs a right-to-work law to catch up.

Oklahoma's 124,000 union members are just as emotional about the issue as Keating.

Stickers on motorized carts at the local General Motors plant say, ``Right-to-work is a ripoff.'' The same slogan appears on T-shirts worn around town by union members.

When Oklahoma last voted on the issue in 1964, it failed by less than 25,000 votes.

Unions fear a loss in bargaining power and declining union membership if the constitutional referendum is adopted.

Union membership has been on the decline nationwide. In the mid-1950s, 35 percent of workers carried union cards, compared to 13 percent today.

``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, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Critics of right to work contend it mainly attracts companies that pay low wages and say the state should concentrate on quality-of-life issues such as improving its educational system to attract industry.

Oklahoma has been trying to diversity its economy away from its traditional dependence on oil. An economic development program offers tax breaks to lure high-wage companies.

Union workers often make higher wages than non-union workers.

John Howry, vice president of Teamsters Local 886, said unionized fork-lift operators make nearly $20 an hour, double that of non-union fork-lift operators.

Oklahoma ranks 43rd in the country in wages. Its workers earn 79.25 percent of the national average, down from 80.42 percent a year ago. Texas and Arkansas, both right-to-work states, rank 25th and 47th respectively.

U.S. Labor Department statistics in the 2000 Census show that 18 of the top 20 states in personal per capita income do not have right to work laws. Six of the bottom 10 states in income growth have right-to-work laws.

Organized labor will try to convince voters that right-to-work means lower paying jobs, while business interests will contend that the law would attract new companies and higher-paying jobs.

The election promises to be a well-financed affair, but the ad battle has not yet begun.

People asked at random about right-to-work often are unfamiliar with the issue. The response from Linda Vaughn, a 47-year-old state government employee, was typical.

``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. ``I really don't know what it means, but it sounds good.''

Right to work laws apply to businesses where workers are required to pay union dues.

Jimmy C. Curry, state president of the AFL-CIO, said only about half of his members fall into this category.

They include employees at American Airlines in Tulsa, the state's largest manufacturing facility, and at the General Motors plant in Oklahoma City.

Some workers resent having to pay union 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. It was the most expensive issue campaign in Idaho history.
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