Many things have changed since last right-to-work vote

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

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The odds appear stacked against opponents of a right-to-work referendum that is headed for a statewide ballot, given Oklahoma's political transformation in recent years.

In 1964, Oklahoma came within 24,288 votes of passing a measure prohibiting unions from requiring employees to pay dues.

Since then, the state has become less union-friendly.

``The demographics have changed so drastically, I just don't think it will have a problem passing now,'' says Oklahoma City businessman Dave Dank, who was involved in the 1964 campaign.

``Anytime you are behind in the polls, you don't feel real good about it,'' says Jimmy C. Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO. ``The reason for that is the public doesn't fully understand the issue and what the results will be. We believe we can turn that around.''

Unions account for only 8 percent of the Oklahoma workforce and can be expected to mount a fierce advertising campaign against the referendum, which will be placed on the November general election ballot in 2002, unless lawmakers decide later to change the date.

Idaho was the last state to enact a right-to-work law in 1986. Most of the right-to-work laws in the South were enacted prior to 1960.

Right-to-work supporters include most of the state's top politicians, led by Republican Gov. Frank Keating, along with state Chambers of Commerce and other business organizations.

They argue Oklahoma is losing jobs because many companies will not locate in a state that does not have a right-to-work law and therefore go to Texas or other bordering states. New Mexico is the only other state in the Sunbelt that does not have a right-to-work statute.

Both sides can produce a plethora of statistics to support their arguments.

Oklahoma's growing Republican minority appears strongly behind the right-to-work effort, and many Democrats, who have been more closely aligned with labor in the past, also are backing the referendum.

Republicans in the Oklahoma House were unanimous in support of right-to-work when a plan to send the issue to the ballot was given final approval last week.

When the issue was narrowly defeated at the polls in 1964, the House had only a handful of Republicans. Now there are 48 Republican members and they are talking about soon taking control of the 101-member body.

In 1964, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in voter registration by almost 5-1. Now it is less than 2-1.

Five of the six members of Congress in 1964 were Democrats. Now five of six are Republicans.

The only Republican who was an elected statewide official back then was Henry Bellmon, the state's first GOP governor, and he shied away from the right-to-work fray.

Now the state's governor and two U.S. senators are Republicans. The state GOP, which called for a right-to-work vote in a recently adopted platform, also counts a lieutenant governor, labor commissioner and two members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Democrats have long accused Keating of playing a political game with the issue, wondering why he did not launch an initiative petition drive earlier to force a statewide vote if the issue was so important to Oklahoma's economic well being.

But this year, it became evident that Democrats, smarting from legislative losses in the 2000 elections, decided to bring any game to an end.

The joint resolution adopted by the House was authored by Democrats _ Sen. Dave Herbert, D-Midwest City, and Rep. Jack Begley, D-Goodwell.

Over the objections of union officials, it was ushered through the legislative process by two Democrats _ Senate President Pro-Tem Stratton Taylor and House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell.

Dank is representative of the changing political culture in Oklahoma. In 1964, he was a Democrat and even worked with veteran political consultant Marty Haunan on the media campaign to defeat the right-to-work question.

Now Dank is a Republican and a right-to-work supporter. He is married to Rep. Odilia Dank, R-Oklahoma City.

He said he changed his view on the issue out of conviction that Oklahoma is losing good manufacturing jobs to nearby states, jobs desperately needed outside the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metroplexes, where wages are higher than in many economically depressed rural communities.

Something needs to be done to keep Oklahoma from being dominated by ``pig farms and private prisons and the telecommunications industry,'' he said.

Recalling the 1964 campaign, when he was on the other side, Dank said national AFL-CIO representatives gave up on winning in the final weeks of before the election.

``They packed their bags and went home,'' he said. ``It was actually the Teamsters who came in and bailed out the campaign.''

Union officials hotly contest Dank's argument that right-to-work will bring better paying jobs to the state. They refer to the proposition as ``a right-to-work-for-less'' plan.

Dank said he is expecting the same rhetoric from unions that he helped publicize in 1964.

``It was a paycheck issue back then _ protect poppa's paycheck. That's what they'll do this time. They'll just tee it up and fight it out based on that. But I think pro-right to work wins big this time, unless something dramatic happens.''