Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

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

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.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • Jerry E

    i”m sure the term [right to work] was master minded by some republician think tank like alec .Sounds good but very misleading;now these anti union 1%ers have came up with another slick misleading law (PAY CHECK PROTECTION).My question why does the republician party want to continually beat down the working middel class?

    • Phil Perspective

      Why? Because all Republicans are corporate toadies. That’s why. All of them. All the GOP cares is that the rich pay as few taxes as possible. The rest is just making the 99% subservient to the 1%

  • I4ani

    They’re kind of glossing over the fact that real wages have gone down in Oklahoma. There is also the issue of skilled labor Unions, like the kind they have in the tech industry, media and film. Most skilled workers won’t even consider a job in Oklahoma because the pay is poor and there is little to no job security. This is in no small part due to right to work legislation. We basically blew off attracting any chance of attracting businesses outside of the oil and manufacturing industries in an effort to bust Unions. Thanks, conservatives.

    • The tech industry has really suffered in Oklahoma since right to work passed. I mean, Tulsa wasn’t rated in the top 10 growth markets for IT… Google and Farmers didn’t open data center’s. .. Oh wait. Never mind.

  • cotf

    1) Wages have gone down EVERYWHERE in the US due to the policies of the Federal Reserve and Federal government. 2) Unemployment is LOWER in Oklahoma, because wages are LOWER in Oklahoma. (perfectly understandable, for people with a functioning brain). 3) The idea that a government can force a business to use only a union, or that a union can force an employee of a business THEY DON’T OWN, to join a union and pay dues to it, is ridiculous. If it were so beneficial to JOIN a union, the employee WOULD join the union.

    Union hacks want it both ways. They want to be able to give no choice to them employer and his employees, but have all the choices for themselves. It is a ridiculous concept. It is even more ridiculous to believe that an employee has any right beyond that to get paid for the work he does. On Friday, after pay is distributed, employee and employer are EVEN. Nobody owes anybody anything, and that includes not owning the employee a JOB on Monday morning.

    The Hostess union “workers” found that out.

  • Tao4mind

    “Right to work” laws remove forced mandatory Union membership fees and attempt to stop the fact of being bullied by unionized employees. Unionized workforces use favoritism regardless of skills or cognitive ability to learn. Forced job promotion, hours of service, wage increases and benefits should be on ability not membership fees. To claim non-union employees are freeloaders for refusing union fees on an $8.00 per hour job is hilarious when Oklahoma AFL-CIO President Jim Curry salary is over $168K a year. Shakespeare’s exact line ”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,”

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