(CNSNews.com) - On September 25, Oklahomans will vote on a referendum that could make Oklahoma a right-to-work state, something that would give people the right to work for a living without being compelled to join a labor union as a condition of employment.
This will be the first time since 1964 that Oklahomans have had the opportunity to enact such a law. The last attempt failed 37 years ago, but the issue regained momentum with the election of Republican Frank Keating as governor in 1994.
"Economists just agree that to be on a level playing field in the economic development arena that right to work is an essential element. It's that simple really," said Nate Webb, director of Communications for the Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice.
The Oklahoma referendum is seen as having national repercussions, given the fact that six other states also are debating the right-to-work issue. A right-to-work victory in Oklahoma could influence similar legislation in Colorado, Kentucky, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Montana.
"I think that there is no doubt that the nation will have its eyes on Oklahoma in the way that it goes up against out-of-state labor, and Oklahoma's efforts to put the choice to a vote of the people," said Webb.
The amount of money spent in the right to work campaign could also be an issue. "The last I heard, the unions were going to spend something like $10- to $15-million dollars [fighting right to work proposals]. We don't have that kind of cash lying around, so we can't match them dollar for dollar. I think a loss will make it tougher in some of the other states," said John Tate, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee.
The group Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice says right to work states have gained 800,000 manufacturing jobs since 1977, while states where union membership is compulsory have lost 2 million jobs.
"If you look at the [right to work] states surrounding Oklahoma, they're creating more jobs and the pay is higher. The thing is job creation. A number of companies refuse to even look at non-right to work states when they are thinking of moving," said Tate.
According to the National Institute for Labor Relations, construction employment increased 27 percent in Right to Work states bordering Oklahoma, while in Oklahoma it grew only two percent in the same period.
"The absence of right-to-work protection is one reason why Oklahoma lags behind its right-to- work neighbors -- Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas -- in virtually every economic category," the Capital Research Center reported.
"I think what we've seen over the years is a flight of workers from the non-RTW states to the RTW states, mainly in the south and the west, where taxes aren't as high and the cost of living is lower," said Tate.
But the Oklahoma AFL-CIO says that of the 15 states with the lowest average annual pay, ten have right to work laws.
The AFL-CIO also says that companies in right to work states are moving to Oklahoma, not out of Oklahoma. It says that Oklahoma City is one of three locations on the short list of Micron Technology Inc., which is looking to build a $1.3 billion manufacturing plant that will employ 3,500 people. Micron is currently located in Idaho, which is a right to work state.
"Oklahoma doesn't need companies that will overlook the state's positive business environment, low cost of living and high quality of life just because someone in another state or foreign country will work for 50 cents an hour less," the Oklahoma AFL-CIO reports on its Website.
"Oklahoma needs quality employers, and it is attracting them in record numbers, many of them from states that have right to work," it said.
Those who advocate right to work in Oklahoma argue that states losing seats in Congress tend to be forced-union states.
"In fact, nine of the ten states that are losing seats are forced-union states," Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice reports. "But the growing right to work states are gaining a total of 12 seats. Of the eight states to gain seats in Congress, six are right to work states," Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice reports.
The group also notes that Oklahoma is the only state west of the Mississippi River that is losing a seat in the House of Representatives.
According to the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, compulsory unionism is primarily responsible for the tax-and-spend policies of the U.S. Congress.
It argues that union officials, using their "federally granted coercive powers," collect billions of dollars every year in compulsory dues, some of which is funneled into unreported campaign operations to "elect and control" members of Congress who are dedicated to higher taxes and increased government spending."