COMMENTARY: Right to work transformed Oklahoma, and can do the same for Michigan
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Published: 11-Dec-2012

OKLAHOMA CITY — Today, the Michigan House approved a law that strikes down the right of organized labor to make union membership a requirement of employment.

If Oklahoma history is instructive, your governor’s likely approval of a right-to-work law will produce an economic boom.

Congratulations, Michigan.

In 2001, after decades of debate and a multi-million dollar campaign, voters in Oklahoma approved a ballot question enshrining the right to work in the state Constitution. 

Today, Oklahoma City has the lowest unemployment rate of any large American city. The state has outperformed much of the nation even during the depths of the Great Recession, and is projected to become one of the top states for job creation in the first quarter of 2013. Per capita personal income growth is outpacing the nation.
 
Ultimately, the same results will come to Michigan.
 
Yesterday, President Barack Obama said the fight over Michigan’s right-to-work proposal is about politics and ideology, not economics.

Politics is indeed part of the equation in any major policy shift in any American state — and that was certainly the case in Oklahoma in 2001, and in Indiana last year.
 
But in the end, the proof is in the pudding: Oklahoma is evolving from its longstanding status as a poor, bottom-tier state into a steadily growing economy with a bright future — and that's all about economics. Still, the strongest arguments for right to work are moral, rooted in rights of voluntary association and personal liberty.
 
Further, if this is “all about politics” what can be said of Michigan’s Proposition 2, arguably the most significant ballot question of 2012? That proposal would have enshrined in state law a virtually unquestioned right for unions to compel membership and organize in workplaces.
 
Proposition 2, the so-called “Protect Our Jobs Act,” was a direct assault on the Taft-Hartley Act, the historic compromise that established many federal provisions facilitating union organizing, while protecting freedom of association for dissenters and — as importantly — an ability for states to establish right-to-work provisions.
 
POJA aimed directly to lock in public-sector unionization rights, but it would also have impacted private sector organizational rights, tilting the equation massively in favor of organized labor.
 
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and his allies tried to bump the measure from the ballot, saying it was unnecessarily confrontational at a moment when the state was hesitantly emerging from the Great Recession. The massive Michigan coalition formed to pass Proposition 2 sneered, and pushed hard — spending millions of dollars to boost the measure.
 
In the end, even many voters in Michigan’s pro-union electorate recognized the measure was a bridge too far. On the same day Barack Obama comfortably won the state with over 54 percent of the vote, Prop 2 was slapped down 58-42.
 
That result makes hollow appeals from union leaders and allies in the last two weeks to avoid confrontation over right to work. The unions worked hard to force this argument, and now they have a fight on their hands.
 
Gov. Snyder’s decision will be dispositive in the short term. But in recent history, Indiana and Oklahoma are prime exhibits that the battle can be waged, politically, and that the economic benefits of right-to-work status are clear.
 
Which brings us back to Oklahoma.
 
For decades, Oklahoma right-to-work proposals were smothered in legislative committees by powerful chairmen beholden to union leaders with lots of cash, and politicians beholden to the dominant Democratic Party. Despite long-standing economic poverty (relative to other states), the status quo prevailed with explicit appeals to the fears of working people and small business owners, contentions that a robust and freer labor market would harm their interests. 
 
In the 1980s, the position of the labor bosses eroded as the Reagan era shifted voter sympathy, especially in statewide contests, toward Republicans. The state carved out a reputation for good workers, low costs and good locations for manufacturing, assembly and transportation. 
 
At The Oklahoman, the state's largest daily newspaper in Oklahoma City, editor and publisher E. L. Gaylord pressed for decades to change state law so that business-location consultants would no longer mark out the state in expansion or relocation decisions.
 
When he hired me as his editorialist in 1989, a job I assumed the following year, he told me passage of right-to-work was a priority. Over the following 13 years, we had hundreds of conversations about the issue, and pressed consistently for worker freedom.
 
In 1994, Republicans Frank Keating and Brenda Reneau were elected governor and labor commissioner, respectively. In the state Senate, conservative stalwart Senator Mike Fair finally had the political allies needed to press for success.
 
Keating asked again and again why Oklahoma — with “the same people, sky and water” as Texas, a right to work bastion — fell so far behind in economic growth and income. For eight years, he made the argument for reform in every State of the State address. 
 
Reneau, a former Democrat and business association executive, focused primarily on the moral and ethical arguments. She steadily eroded the mindset that tilted working people toward security and against liberty. 
 
By 2000, Fair had enough raw numbers to win if he could get a legislative vote, but did not have the muscle to force a vote in the Democratic Senate.
 
Then-Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin did something Reneau had long advocated, taking charge of the Senate to recognize the GOP sponsor of the proposal. It failed, by three votes – the key votes coming from Democrats. The following November, all three men were defeated.
 
An alliance coalesced around grassroots activists (precursors of the Tea Party) who had worked the issue for decades. They allied with Republicans, the state Chamber of Commerce under then-President Richard Rush, the City Chamber’s Dean Schirff, other business leaders, publisher Gaylord, and politicians Keating, Fallin and Reneau. 
 
Gaylord's paper wrote and published a new wave of commentaries, the Tulsa World joined in, smaller newspapers pressed aggressively, Keating raised money for what everyone knew would be a titanic battle, and Reneau preached the good word. 
 
Marc Nuttle, an Oklahoman with national experience who had frequently battled unions, negotiated the measure through the Legislature and onto a special election ballot. He cautioned backers to “keep it simple. This is about freedom, and the right to choose. It's also about economic growth and a better future, but fundamentally this is about freedom.”
 
He supervised a saturation television advertising buy, and the largest single newspaper advertising purchase in state history.
 
Key Democrats gravitated to support the measure, including former Governors George Nigh and David Boren.
 
After the most expensive campaign in state history, with unions enjoying a spending edge, Nuttle proved the prophet. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, appeals to human liberty overcame attempts to play on the fears of workers and business. On September 25, the most divisive policy issue in modern state history gained comfortable 54 percent approval from voters. After two years of ligation, by 2003, the law was in effect.
 
Today, the evidence is in. Productivity is up, manufacturing GDP has grown, and “multiplier effects” are cascading. In an analysis published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik report, “Manufacturing output and productivity have outpaced the competition, and people from non-RTW states are voting with their feet by moving to Oklahoma in increasing numbers.” In recent years, personal income growth in Oklahoma has been in the top five nationally.

In the end, everything unfolded more or less as Mr. Gaylord, who died in 2003, said it would. The state has been changed forever, moving from the back of the pack to one of the top five U.S. states for economic growth, rising per capita personal income and one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates.
 
The economic argument for right to work is powerful and persuasive, but its fundamental appeal is moral.
 
It protects the right to choose – in Idaho (1985), Oklahoma (2001) and Indiana (2012). It will do the same in Michigan, soon.
 
McGuigan was editorial editor at The Oklahoman, where he pressed for passage of the Right-to-Work Referendum in editorials and commentaries.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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