Right-to-work laws prohibit the requirement of union membership as a term or condition of employment. In the United States, labor relations are governed largely by federal law. However, Section 14(b) of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (Taft-Hartley Labor Act) allows states to adopt right-to-work laws.
Oklahomans first voted on right to work in 1964. Because the legislature was unwilling to submit the issue to the voters, right to work appeared on the ballot as a result of initiative petition. The petition was placed on the ballot May 5, 1964, the date of the primary election. After a heated campaign and a large turnout, right to work lost 376,555 (51.66%) to 352, 267 (48.34%). The measure was approved in thirty-five counties and defeated in forty-two. Support for the proposal was centered in central and western Oklahoma. Only four counties in eastern Oklahoma, Bryan, Nowata, Washington, and Love, voted for right to work. Most significantly, right to work lost in the state's two most populated counties, Oklahoma and Tulsa.
Almost four decades passed before Oklahomans again went to the polls to vote on right to work. Unlike 1964 the measure was submitted by legislative referendum rather than initiative petition. The right-to-work proposal submitted by the legislature took the form of a constitutional amendment.
The amendment prohibited requiring any person to 1) refrain from joining a union as a condition of employment; 2) join a union as a condition of employment; 3) pay dues of any kind to a labor organization; 4) pay to any third party any sum equivalent to dues required of union members; and 5) be hired through a labor union or a union hiring hall. Deduction of union dues from wages without prior employee authorization was prohibited as well, and violation of the amendment was made a misdemeanor.
The senate voted 31-17 for submission, while the house vote was 73-28 for sending the question to a vote of the people. However, the provision for submitting the question to a special election failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority in either chamber. This meant that the measure would not appear on the ballot until the November 2002 general election. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue soon changed their minds regarding a special election. Within two weeks of the initial vote, the legislature voted for a September 25, 2001, special election on State Question 695.
Oklahomans passed right to work by 447,072 votes (54.15%) to 378,465 (45.85%). The "no" vote increased less than two thousand from 1964, while the "yes" vote increased almost ninety thousand. Only two counties (Nowata and Pawnee) that had voted for right to work in 1964 voted against it in 2001, while eighteen counties that voted against right to work in 1964 (Atoka, Canadian, Carter, Comanche, Garvin, Jefferson, Johnston, Kay, Lincoln, McClain, Marshall, Murray, Oklahoma, Pontotoc, Pushmataha, Seminole, Stephens, and Tulsa) supported right to work in 2001. The proponents of right to work were aided greatly by bipartisan support for the measure from Republican Gov. Frank Keating, the incumbent, and former governors David Boren and George Nigh, both Democrats.
However, the right-to-work controversy did not end with the counting of the ballots. A lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma challenging the amendment's validity. After proceedings in both federal and state courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the sections of the amendment providing that 1) no person could be required not to join a union as a condition of employment, 2) prohibiting hiring through a labor organization, or union hall, and 3) forbidding deduction of union dues from wages without prior employee authorization were preempted by federal law, as was the section making violation of the amendment a misdemeanor, to the extent that it applied to the other preempted sections. However, the court also held that the nonpreempted sections were effective and constituted the law of Oklahoma. The essence of the amendment, the prohibiting of union membership as a condition of employment, was sustained. Thus, Oklahoma became the twenty-second right-to-work state.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 15 March 2001, 29 September 2001, and 16 October 2001. "Right to Work," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 19 August 2001 and 17 September 2001.
Von Russell Creel
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