Oklahoma voters approve right-to-work measure

Tuesday, September 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Frank Keating says voters took a first step toward economic liberation by approving a measure that makes Oklahoma the 22nd state to enact a law prohibiting mandatory union dues.

With all the votes in, returns from Tuesday's election showed the so-called right-to-work measure approved by a vote of 54 percent, or 446,936 votes. to 46 percent, or 378,236 votes.

``This is affirmation of Oklahoma's greatness, Oklahoma's willingness to change, to become a renaissance state,'' said a jubilant Keating, the leading proponent of the constitutional amendment.

``The is the first step in the liberation of the Oklahoma economy. It's a statement for prosperity and growth.''

Keating, a Republican, has pushed for such a law since first taking office in 1995.

The urban areas of the state provided the margin of victory. Oklahoma County, where Oklahoma City is located, passed the plan by almost 34,000 votes. In Tulsa County, where opponents expected a victory, the proposal was approved by more than 10,000 votes.

Opponents of the measure, State Question 695, said it was up to backers of the law to show that it would benefit citizens.

Pat Hall, treasurer of the Vote No on 695 campaign, said he remains unconvinced of claims by the measure's proponents that it would help workers.

``They have won _ increase our benefits and pay,'' said Hall, former Democratic Party official and head of the state employee's union.

Oklahoma became the first state since Idaho in 1986 to vote to ban labor contracts that require all workers to pay union dues or representation fees.

Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO and an opponent of the measure, said the anti-right-to-work campaign picked up speed after early polls showed public sentiment strongly in favor of right-to-work.

``Tonight we got over 46 percent of the vote,'' he said. ``Over 350,000 Oklahomans believed our message.''

``We have to back up and regroup. We built some fabulous coalitions _ teachers, firefighters, legal scholars, professors. We registered over 30,000 new union members over the summer.''

The vote came after the most expensive election campaign in state history as business and labor interests spent more than $10 million together to get their message out. Spending was roughly equivalent on both sides.

It was a rematch of a right-to-work election battle 37 years ago. Unions won the 1964 election by less than 25,000 votes.

Right-to-work forces hoped to use the victory to 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, based in Springfield Va.

``It always helps us when we win one,'' Kelly said. ``Yes, the last state to become right-to-work was Idaho, but over the last eight years, we have gradually built up our support in state legislatures.''

Keating was one of several Republican leaders who actively campaigned for the proposal, along with chambers of commerce officials across the state.

The Vote No on 695 coalition featured small business people, teachers, firefighters and others and was largely financed by unions.

Oklahoma joins neighbors such as Kansas, Arkansas and Texas as right-to-work states.

Keating said the lack of such a law gave those states an edge in competition for new industry. Opponents said right-to-work laws mainly attract low-wage companies.

Although leaders of the Democratic majority in the Legislature worked toward getting the issue to the ballot box, most Democratic officials were not visible in the campaign on either side.

The strongest opposition to the measure came from traditionally Democratic counties in eastern and northeastern Oklahoma.