Amidst the eternal struggle between what the state’s predominant Christian populace would term godliness and sin, a historic electoral shift mushroomed in the American South. Nowhere did things change more dramatically than in Oklahoma. Scores of elected officials in the Sooner State, as well as hundreds of thousands of voters, like in other Southern and Border states, switched their multi-generational party allegiance from Democrat to Republican.
By the year 2000, many Oklahomans of Southern heritage had long since forgotten their ancient enmity against the Republican Party as the liberal pillager of the Civil War and Reconstruction South. They shockingly transformed the state into a bastion for that now-conservative party.
A blockbuster demonstration of the changing political landscape was the state’s landmark 2001 Right-to-Work (RTW) (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapters 9, 17) constitutional amendment vote. The existing, non-RTW, “Union Shop” law required all employees to belong to labor unions who collectively bargained for their salaries and benefits in companies where they were present. Employees had to contribute money to those unions, and thus to the political candidates and issues of various sorts that union leadership supported. This occurred whether the employee agreed with the causes the union supported or not.
Unions grew to power in the early 20th century in response to unjust corporate labor and cartel practices, and unfairly treated employees. Increasing corruption and even violence, however, often accompanied labor union growth, especially among the giant unions centered in the northeastern U.S. This gradually retarded their appeal, especially in the generally more conservative, less-urbanized, free market-supportive Southern and Western sections, which had never championed them.
“Business locators and CEOs frequently told me that their companies would never look at a place, such as Oklahoma, to invest and expand that didn’t have right to work,” said Frank Keating, Oklahoma governor at the time of the vote. “That was particularly so with Asian companies. Conversely, for others the presence of a strong RTW law was one of a select few ‘first principle’ requirements.”
Keating had boomed the need for RTW to increase Oklahoma’s economic competitiveness, and to allow Oklahomans the “right to work free of union pressure and threats” for seven straight years in his State of the State addresses. He remembered “union members converging and booing me from the galleries every time.”
Even as late as the 2001 vote in the southwestern state of Oklahoma, however, the national unions’ immense economic power evidenced itself. According to the Oklahoman newspaper, 99.49% of anti-RTW contributions came from labor unions, not individuals or any type of business. Of that dominant amount, 80% came from unions outside of Oklahoma.
In contrast, Oklahoma businesses and individuals constituted 97% of the pro-RTW donors and more than 83% of the contributions. The labor unions compiled “a heavy spending advantage” over their right-to-work supporters.
In September 2001, with an enormous special election turnout, Oklahomans reversed course and decisively ended compulsory union membership. Every county west of Interstate 35 supported the measure. Most in the still-strongly-Democratic swaths of eastern Oklahoma opposed it.
“This is a great victory for personal freedom,” said veteran Republican U.S. Senator Don Nickles. “Finally, those who earn the paychecks can decide for themselves whether they want to pay agency fees or not.”
Right-to-work’s effect in the state has been hotly debated. Opponents deny that it has helped and cite a paucity of statistics to the contrary.
A U.S. Department of Commerce study done a dozen years after the vote differed. It revealed that private, nonfarm compensation in Oklahoma had grown much more during that time than the national average, and more so yet than the state’s non-RTW neighbors New Mexico, Colorado, and Missouri. Results were the opposite for the dozen years prior to the RTW vote, with Oklahoma trailing by similar amounts in those categories.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.