Senate passes right-to-work measure

Wednesday, March 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate passed a right-to-work bill Wednesday, one day after 2,000 union supporters marched to the Capitol to oppose the legislation.

The bill would ask voters to decide whether unions should be prohibited from requiring employees to pay dues.

Senators approved the measure, 31-17, after two hours of debate during which Democrats denounced the plan as an attack on the state's working men and women and Republicans hailed it as an opportunity to spur the state's economic growth. The measure now goes to the House.

Sen. Dave Herbert, D-Midwest City, author of Senate Joint Resolution 1, said the debate showed right to work is a pocketbook issue.

``I think the people have told us one thing, if it's a pocketbook issue, we want to vote on it. Now let's get it on,'' Herbert said.

In its current form, Oklahomans would vote at 2002 general election on a referendum placing a right-to-work provision in the state Constitution.

All eighteen Senate Republicans voted for the resolution. They were joined by 13 Democrats.

Seventeen Democrats opposed the bill.

``This is a sorry piece of legislation,'' said Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta.

Republican supporters said Oklahoma has fallen behind other Southern states because of the absence of a right-to-work law. They argued it would bring more jobs to the state.

``To create opportunity, we have to remove barriers to companies coming to the state,'' said Sen. Mark Snyder, R-Edmond. He said many companies cross Oklahoma off their lists of site locations because the state does not have a right-to-work law.

``It's not a political stand, it's a matter of philosophy about where we need to go,'' Snyder said.

Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, who has pushed for a right-to-work law ever since he took office in 1995 said he was pleased with the Senate vote.

``I congratulate members of both parties in cooperating in a bipartisan fashion to allow this measure to go to a public vote,'' the governor said.

But the debate on the Senate floor was anything but bipartisan as Democratic opponents accused Republicans of pushing a divisive issue to further the GOP drive to gain a legislative majority.

Sen. Johnnie Crutchfield, D-Ardmore, said that because of his opposition, his local chamber of commerce had told him it will field an opponent against him at the next election ``and you won't be back.''

``Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles,'' Crutchfield said, arguing that right-to-work was a cheap alternative to spending the kind of money required to upgrade the state's educational system.

Saying union jobs are the most sought after in his district, veteran Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, turned to the Republican aisle and asked: ``What unions are you against? Get up and declare yourselves.''

``It's wrong, it's evil, it's bad, it's a step in the wrong direction and we shouldn't do it,'' Stipe said.

Sen. Charles R. Ford, R-Tulsa, challenged the argument that right to work produces low-paying jobs. He said wages in Kansas and Texas, two right-to-work states, are 15 percent higher than in Oklahoma.

But Stipe said Oklahoma should aspire to be like California and New York, which have high wages and do not have a right-to-work law.

Sen. Penny Williams, D-Tulsa, said the answer to Oklahoma's problems is better education. She said hundreds of high-paying jobs are being exported to other states by Oklahoma companies because of a lack of engineers and other highly-trained workers.

Jimmy C. Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, said Senate passage was expected. ``We will take the next step and fight it in the House, where approval is not a sure thing,'' Curry said.

Senators debated the issue a day after union members, many wearing T-shirts declaring that ``right to work is a ripoff,'' argued at a Capitol rally that the proposal will lead to lower wages and benefits for working men and women.

Oklahomans last voted on the issue in 1964, turning it down in a close vote.

A right-to-work law would outlaw so-called security clauses that require the withholding of dues from the checks of all employees of a company, including non-union members.

Foes say such arrangements are unfair and tantamount to compulsory unionism, which is prohibited by federal law.

Curry said security clauses are fair because unions are required by federal law to represent all workers in labor disputes, whether or not the workers are union members.