Eleven years on, a fight that mattered: Right To Work in Oklahoma


 Oklahoma City — Right to work is in the news again: Under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana is about to enact the reform through legislative action. Approval could come late this week.

In 2001, after debate that ran for decades, and a final referendum campaign that cost millions (most from labor unions who largely avoided reporting strictures), Oklahomans supported a right-to-work referendum. The popular approval added to state’s populist-oriented constitution a protection for personal rights of association, choice and liberty, denying the power of government or any group to compel a worker to join a labor union as a condition of employment.

The roll of honor for Oklahoma right to work is long, but a few names and events stand out. Like Idaho in 1985, right to work came to pass slowly, and in the end through a ballot proposition.

For decades, Oklahoma right-to-work proposals were smothered in legislative committees by powerful chairmen beholden to union leaders with lots of cash, and politicians beholden to the dominant Democratic party. Despite cultural conservatism and long-standing economic poverty (in comparative terms to other states), the status quo prevailed with explicit appeals to the fears of working people and small business owners, contentions that a robust and less-restricted labor market would harm their interests.

In the 1980s, the position of the labor bosses eroded as the Reagan era shifted voter sympathy, especially in statewide contests, toward Republicans. The state carved out a reputation for good workers, low costs and good locations for manufacturing, assembly and transportation.

At The Oklahoman, the state’s largest daily newspaper in Oklahoma City, editor and publisher E. L. Gaylord pressed for decades to change state law so that business location consultants would no longer mark out the state in expansion or relocation decisions.

By the 1990s, the tide of history combined with a steady stream of editorials and commentaries were beginning to persuade the fearful to embrace, rather than hide from, the future.

In 1994, Republicans Frank Keating and Brenda Reneau were elected governor and labor commissioner, respectively. In the state Senate, conservative stalwart Senator Mike Fair, who had championed the issue, finally had the political allies needed to press for success.

Keating was a mainstream conservative Republican who had asked again and again in his campaign why Oklahoma, with “the same people, sky and water” as Texas fell so far behind the state of Texas in economic growth and personal income. He made the pragmatic argument for reform in every State of the State address, and in hundreds of speeches.

Reneau was a former Democrat and business association executive who focused primarily on the moral and ethical arguments for right-to-work. As the first Republican to win a labor commissioner’s race, she helped steadily erode the mindset that tilted working people toward security and against liberty.

By 2000, Fair had enough raw numbers to win if he could get a legislative vote on a right-to-work referendum – putting the issue before voters for ultimate resolution. But, they did not have the muscle to force a vote in the Senate, where Democrats still had a majority. That’s why Republican Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin did something Reneau had long advocated, taking the chairman’s post in the Senate to force a vote on the issue.

In a moment of consequential drama, the Democratic Senate President Pro Temp peacefully handed the gavel to Fallin, who recognized the GOP sponsor of the referendum proposal. After debate and a roll call, it failed, by three votes. The margin came from three Democrats whose districts were overwhelmingly sympathetic to right to work. In the following November election, all three men were defeated.

An alliance coalesced around grass roots activists (precursors of the Tea Party) who had worked on the issue for decades. They joined in alliance with the Republicans, the state Chamber of Commerce under Richard Rush, the City Chamber’s Dean Schirff, other business leaders, publisher Gaylord, Gov. Keating, Lt. Gov. Fallin and Commissioner Reneau.

Gaylord’s paper wrote and published a new wave of editorials and opinion pieces, the Tulsa World joined in with its own advocacy, smaller newspapers pressed the issue more aggressively, Keating raised the money for what everyone knew would be a titanic battle, and Reneau kept preaching the good word.

The pro-right-to-work coalition hired Marc Nuttle, an Oklahoman with national experience who had frequently battled unions. He negotiated the measure through the Legislature and onto a special election ballot. A sophisticated guy, he cautioned supporters to “keep it simple. This is about freedom, and the right to choose. It’s also about economic growth and a better future, but fundamentally this is about freedom.”

He kept it simple, but also financed a saturation television advertising buy, and the largest single newspaper advertising purchase in history for the final two weekends before election day.

As the campaign unfolded, many key Democrats gravitated to support the measure, including former Governors George Nigh and David Boren.

After the most expensive campaign of any kind in state history, Nuttle proved the prophet. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the most powerful theme in Oklahoma remained as Nuttle had anticipated.

Appeals to human liberty overcame attempts to play on the fears of workers and business. On September 25, 2001, the most divisive policy issue in modern state history gained comfortable 54 percent approval from the voters. Litigation resulted, but by 2003, the law was in effect.

Ten years later, the proof is in the pudding. Productivity is up, manufacturing GDP has grown, and “multiplier effects” are cascading.

Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik report, in an analysis published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), “Manufacturing output and productivity have outpaced the competition, and people from non-RTW states are voting with their feet by moving to Oklahoma in increasing numbers.” In the last couple of quarters, personal income growth in Oklahoma has been in the top five, nationwide.

In the end, everything unfolded more or less as Gaylord and the analysts at OCPA had said it would. The state has been changed forever, moving from the back of the pack to one of the top five U.S. states for economic growth, rising per capita personal income and one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. But the fundamental appeal of right to work remains the same: It protects the right to choose.

As was the case in Idaho, so it was in Oklahoma, and will be in Indiana.

Given a choice clearly defined between personal freedom and economic security, Americans still choose freedom. In the end, that choice leaves them free to seek economic security in their own ways, in voluntary affiliation and without the compulsion of state action.

As free men, and women, shall stand: Go Hoosiers.

Note: McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, a Franklin Center affiliate which in 2011 was named one of Oklahoma’s best news websites in the annual competition of the Society for Professional Journalists. From 1990 to 2002, McGuigan worked with publisher Edward L. Gaylord at The Oklahoman, as editor of the editorial page.