It could take years to see significant benefits, official says

Thursday, September 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Officials began promoting Oklahoma's status as a right-to-work state on Wednesday, while saying it could take years before the newly approved law has a significant impact.

On Tuesday, voters adopted a constitutional amendment making Oklahoma the 22nd state, and the first since Idaho in 1986, to enact a law barring labor contracts that require all workers to pay union dues.

``As of today, Oklahoma is open for business,'' said Gov. Frank Keating, who pushed hard for passage of State Question 695.

During the campaign, Keating and others said right to work would bring more jobs to the state and increase wages because of competition for available workers. On election night, he said passage was ``the first step in the liberation of the Oklahoma economy.''

At a Wednesday news conference, Russell Perry, secretary of economic development, announced that Department of Commerce officials have begun contacting company executives and business site locators to let them know that Oklahoma is now a right-to-work state.

Perry said that before the vote he and Keating had talked to some companies that expressed an interest in coming to Oklahoma if the right-to-work proposal passed.

He predicted the proposal would bring in companies that pay $15 to $20 an hour, but he could not name any businesses considering the state nor did he have a timetable on when they might locate new facilities in Oklahoma.

John Reid, director of business location at the agency, said it may take years before citizens see significant benefits from the new law.

``You're talking about a several-year process,'' Reid said. ``It's not something that happens over night.''

Ron Bussert, director of the commerce agency, said right to work is an important new job recruiting tool. He said the final decisions on what kind of companies come to a particular site in Oklahoma will be made largely by business executives and local officials.

Tuesday's vote ended an intense, expensive campaign that pitted business interests against unions and others.

Keating was heavily involved in the campaign and drew criticism from some opponents for sending a letter a few days before the election telling his fellow Republicans that a vote for S.Q. 695 was a vote for freedom and ``a vote against outsiders who would try to control our state's future.''

The governor said voters could ``fight back'' against the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington by voting in the Oklahoma election.

``State Question 695 gives us the opportunity to end a system that takes away the freedom of our citizens in the workplace,'' he wrote.

John Cox, press secretary, said Keating was speaking of ``out-of-state unions'' when he referred to outsiders in the letter.

As Oklahomans looked to their economic future, National Right to Work Committee spokesman Barry Kelley said his group's efforts to pass similar laws in other states would not be through the election route.

He said referendums have been held on right to work in 16 states and supporters have been successful only two times. He said the best strategy for right-to-work advocates is to persuade legislators to pass such laws, not conducting expensive campaigns and going up against well-financed unions.

``I hate to say it this, but it probably was an anomaly,'' Kelley said of the Oklahoma election.

He said conditions were just right for passage because the issue had the support of the governor and other top elected officials, as well as newspapers around the state.

Before Idaho, Kansas in 1958 was the last state to approve right to work at an election, Kelley said.

Kelley said the Oklahoma vote ``should be a wake-up call for Republicans'' in Congress to get behind a proposed national right-to-work law.

He said a national law is needed because railroad and airline employees can still be subject to compulsory union fees, even in states such as Oklahoma that have enacted right-to-work laws.

Unofficial returns showed S.Q. 695 receiving a vote of 54 percent, or 446,936 votes, to 46 percent, or 378,236 votes against it.

Jimmy C. Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, said the vote was a setback for working Oklahomans, ``but we'll be back.''

He said unions registered 30,000 members as new voters prior to the election, the most expensive in state history. More than $10 million was spent by the two sides.

The proposition was heavily favored in urban areas such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa and parts of southern and western Oklahoma. It failed in several eastern and northeastern counties, where Democrats have and big edge over Republicans in voter registration.