The last time Oklahomans voted on a "right to work" law, in 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned against the proposal, arguing that busting unions would hurt Oklahomans of all races. King's message got through; by a 52-to-48 margin, Oklahoma voters retained protections that allow unions to collect dues and fully represent all workers at organized workplaces.
Antiunion politicians and corporate interests in Oklahoma and nationally refused to accept the vote, however. For four decades they've pushed for a new referendum. This year, under intense pressure from Governor Frank Keating, the Democrat-controlled Oklahoma legislature buckled, scheduling a September 25 referendum that has turned the state into this year's fiercest political battlefield.
As the vote approaches, Keating and US Senator Don Nickles, both prominent Republicans with close ties to the Bush Administration, are pulling out all the stops, even organizing Washington fundraisers with support from the US Chamber of Commerce to pay for a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of the antiunion proposal. They've got a major ally in the Oklahoman, which has a policy of printing daily attacks on "big labor" and whose publisher has donated $250,000 to the referendum campaign. They've also got right-wing Democratic backers such as former senator from Oklahoma David Boren.
The "yes" vote campaign is being fueled by huge checks from multinational corporations like Wal-Mart, which has pumped $100,000 into the deceptively named Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice. Oklahoma unionists fighting the measure have launched the Right-to-Work Is a Ripoff campaign. But it's an uphill struggle in a socially conservative state where less than 9 percent of workers are unionized and where the Oklahoman ("the Worst Newspaper in America," according to the Columbia Journalism Review ) regularly blasts unions for supporting the rights of gays and women. "The attacks haven't just been divisive, they've been crude and vicious," says Marta Ames, director of Pride At Work, a national organization of gay and lesbian union activists.
As the vote nears, and as the antilabor pronouncements grow more venomous, a coalition of religious and civil rights leaders, Oklahomans for No on State Question 695, is attempting to seize the high ground in the tradition of Dr. King. "Nothing threatens the fabric of family life more than a loss of wages and a reduction of benefits," says the Rev. Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister, who notes that workers in the twenty-one states with right-to-work laws earn 15 percent less on average than workers in other states. "The politicians and multinational corporations behind Question 695 are masters of deceit."