Teamsters Local 523 President Gary Ketchum says 'right-to-work' is simply an attempt at union busting.

Logan Layden / NPR/StateImpact

A Decade After Right-to-Work, Bitterness Remains in Oklahoma

  • Logan Layden

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Teamsters Local 523 President Gary Ketchum says right-to-work is simply an attempt at union busting.

Last month, Indiana enacted a law giving workers the choice to opt out of paying union dues. It’s the first successful right-to-work proposal since Oklahoma’s in 2001.

Now several other states are considering it.

Indiana looked to Oklahoma for input on the law’s effects.

But the Hoosiers found mixed signals from the Sooner state showing business and union leaders still don’t agree on the issue.

“Selfishly, for Oklahoma, it would be better if Indiana didn’t enact right-to-work because we believe we have a competitive advantage right now over Indiana by being able to compete against you for jobs and capital,” Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce President Fred Morgan said to the Indiana General Assembly in January.

A few days later found Oklahoma union member Kitti Asberry protesting at the Indiana capital in front of WISH-TV cameras.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

A poster of protest on the wall of Teamsters Local 523.

“We were just brought down to the middle of a room and told that we were losing our jobs as a result of right-to-work,” Asberry said.

Is there anything the rest of the country can glean from Oklahoma’s decade under right-to-work?

Jonathan Small is the director of fiscal policy for the conservative Oklahoma Counsel of Public Affairs. He says it’s hard to argue with Oklahoma’s economy.

“Our GDP is up, and productivity has been increased per worker. So, we’ve seen several things happen. We’ve also seen net in-migration of people grow into Oklahoma,” Small says.

The numbers can be confusing. Pay for manufacturing workers is down slightly and population increases are a trend across most of the Sun Belt, regardless of whether workers can be forced to pay dues. Assigning credit or blame exclusively to right-to-work isn’t possible. Small says it makes common economic sense and is at least partially responsible for Oklahoma’s relative success over the past decade.

Oklahoma Labor Union Membership 2001-2011

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

A Matter of Principle

But Small says at its core right-to-work is more about basic fairness than economic indicators.

“Right-to-work isn’t the single, only, sole factor; remembering too, first it’s a principled reason why we do it,” Small says. “When you have a policy like we used to have, where someone would have to be a member of some bullying organization in order to get a job, regardless of what the outcome is, we still think it’s better for people to be able to move freely throughout the job market”

But basic fairness is also the core argument for union leaders like Gary Ketchum of Teamsters Local 523 in Tulsa.

“It forces the labor unions to have to provide our services to people that choose not to pay dues,” Ketchum says. “It legalizes theft. It’s morally and ethically wrong.”

Continuing Hostilities

Ketchum says right-to-work is nothing more than an attempt to bust unions. It means less money coming into locals and more animosity between workers. It’s no secret when someone chooses not to pay dues.

“If they choose not to join, then there’s a point they become, in our eyes and the workers that they work around, a freeloader,” Ketchum says. “So, everybody in that plant, that freight barn, that facility knows that, ‘hey, that guy or gal over there is freeloading off of me, because I’m paying dues for these services that I’m getting from the Teamsters. This guy or gal is just satisfied to freeload and have me pay his or her way.’”

Oklahoma AFL-CIO President Jim Curry says fewer than one-in-ten union represented workers choose to opt out of paying dues. And union membership is actually increasing in Oklahoma, following the economic recovery. The number of dues-paying workers was up a percentage point in 2011 to about 6 .5 percent. Still, Curry says right-to-work damaged his members.

“For several years after it passed none, of my locals could get a contract signed before it was expiring,” Curry says. “Many of them worked without a contract because the labor-management relationship was so bad for several years following right-to-work passage. It was really, really bad and contentious in contract talks.”

But both sides agree a governor’s signing ceremony won’t be the end of the right-to-work debate in any state.

CLARIFICATION: Federal labor law already makes it illegal to require individuals to join a labor union in order to receive or keep a job. Historically, unions have pushed for contracts with companies that require even non-union members to pay the union for representation in labor negotiations. Oklahoma’s “Right to Work” law bars employees from having to pay mandatory fees to unions for labor representation.