IOWA debate spills over into Oklahoma

Monday, July 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Gov. Frank Keating sees it as the road to riches for Oklahomans, while his Iowa counterpart thinks bragging on right to work is like putting ``a cheap wage sign'' on his state.

Who is right is at the core of the debate ahead of a Sept. 25 election on a proposal to prohibit labor contracts that make payment of union dues mandatory.

A political tiff in Iowa spilled over into the Oklahoma campaign this month after the AFL-CIO circulated a flier citing a study by an Iowa think-tank, which said right-to-work laws have tended to suppress wages in Iowa, Nebraska and other states in the region.

The study backed up Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's contention that right-to-work was not a plus for his state in recruiting industry. His administration had references to right to work removed from the state's promotional materials.

``Many people feel the right-to-work language is synonymous with a cheap wage sign on the state,'' Vilsack said.

``The strategy of advertising Iowa as a right-to-work state is not making a lot of sense,'' agreed University of Iowa professor Peter Fisher in a story in the Omaha World-Herald. ``We have a choice to make. What kind of growth do we want to have?''

Vilsack is a Democrat and his actions drew a denunciation from the Republican majority in Iowa's General Assembly.

Arguments that right-to-work laws keep wages low are scoffed at by supporters of the proposed Oklahoma constitutional amendment.

In Oklahoma, Keating called Vilsack ``a nice guy,'' but said he is misguided on the issue.

``There is no question,'' that a right-to-work law will mean higher wages for Oklahomans, Keating said. He said if State Question 695 is adopted, he will advertise Oklahoma's right-to-work status at every opportunity.

At a briefing last week, arranged by the Right to Work for Oklahomans organization, economist Robert Reed of the University of Oklahoma presented statistics showing that per capita income in right-to-work states had grown by slightly more than it had in other states.

The professor's figures, however, showed that the average per capita personal income in right-to-work states was $26,287, compared with $29,816 in non-right-to-work states.

Reed said there is strong evidence that right-to-work laws increase economic activity.

The professor conceded he was ideologically predisposed in favor of right to work. He said unions had a place at the turn of the century in the United States but, ``personally, I don't believe unions contribute to growth today.''

Keating said right to work would bring more jobs to the state, creating competition for workers that would drive up wages.

But opponents, including Sen. Keith Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, said that theory is undercut the fact that Oklahoma's jobless rate has been running 2 percentage points lower than the national average.

Leftwich said the fact that right-to-work states have a slightly higher growth rate is meaningless ``because many of those states had nowhere to go but up.''

Jimmy Curry, state AFL-CIO president, referred to statistics he said are overwhelming in favor of the proposition that right-to-work laws mean low wages.

Curry cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics showing 18 of the top 20 states in per capita income do not have right-to-work laws.

Oklahoma is 43rd in the country in wages. Two nearby right-to-work states show a big contrast in the per capita income rankings. Texas is 25th and Arkansas is 47th.

The truth, Leftwich said, ``is you've got 50 different states with 50 different economies. A right-to-work law is not a sole determinator of a state's economy.''

Also at last week's briefing was James R. Wilbanks of the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, who has made a study showing that Idaho's manufacturing employment rose at a higher rate than similar states after right-to-work was approved at the polls in 1986.

Idaho was the last state to pass a right-to-work law.

Reed said he had no explanation why, according to Labor Department data, Idaho's PCPI ranking steadily dropped between 1995 and 1999 before rebounding in 2000.

He said various economists can come up with different conclusions on the wage question, but cautioned reporters to be wary of comparisons of states from different regions.

Oklahoma is among the majority of states that do not have right-to-work laws. Of the 21 states that have them, most are located in the South.