| September 6, 2013

Gov. Frank Keating and the Right to Work

When Oklahomans (and Americans) think of former Gov. Frank Keating, they doubtless remember his grace and dignity in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

But as someone who works at a public policy think tank in Oklahoma City—and who interacted with Gov. Keating during his two terms in office—it’s his leadership on matters of state policy that I remember most.

In an article published in 2000 in Investor’s Business Daily, I pointed out that Gov. Keating—despite opposition from the good ol’ boys who then controlled the state legislature—had been able to promote, and in many cases push through, important reforms such as tax cuts, privatization, and real education reform. What I didn’t know at the time was that the best was yet to come.

Gov. Keating understood “the importance of freedom in the labor market,” Congressman Jim Bridenstine told the students at Oklahoma Wesleyan University earlier this year. “Throughout his two terms he fought to make Oklahoma a Right to Work state. He knew that college graduates, like many of you soon will be, along with others in our state searching for employment, should not be forced to join a labor union against their will.”

In September 2001 Oklahomans went to the polls and approved State Question 695, popularly known as “Right to Work” (RTW), a constitutional amendment which indeed gives every Oklahoma employee the choice of paying—or not paying—a labor union as a condition of employment.

Victory has a thousand fathers, of course, but Frank Keating (along with newspaper publisher Edward L. Gaylord and RTW campaign maestro Marc Nuttle) is at the top of that paternity list. Year after year Gov. Keating called for Right to Work in his State of the State address, and year after year he was booed and jeered by disrespectful souls in the gallery. But he persevered, and his leadership—both from the bully pulpit and behind the scenes—was key to bringing labor-market freedom to Oklahomans.

As a serious and learned Catholic, Gov. Keating is doubtless aware that “Catholic social teaching has unequivocally endorsed some form of trade unionism,” as Charles W. Baird has written (Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism). However, Baird adds,

Too often, Catholics, lay and ordained, have simply assumed that Catholic social teaching supports all trade unions set up under the auspices of democratic governments. … In my judgment, Catholic social teaching supports voluntary, and condemns compulsory, unionism. In the United States, the statute that defines the rules of unionism is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was originally enacted in 1935 and was amended in 1947 and again in 1959. My hypothesis is that NLRA-style unionism is inconsistent with Catholic social teaching.

It’s also inconsistent with economic growth, as Gov. Keating never tired of repeating and as economist Richard Vedder later confirmed. Writing in The Cato Journal (“Right-to-Work Laws: Liberty, Prosperity, and Quality of Life”), Vedder found there is “a very strong and highly statistically significant (at the 1 percent level) positive relationship between Right-to-Work laws and economic growth. ... This is a powerful finding: a seemingly modest change in the legal environment in which labor markets operate has a significant impact on the rate of economic growth.”

Right to Work increases jobs and choices, adds Heritage Foundation policy analyst James Sherk. Indeed, since 2009, Right to Work states have created four times as many jobs as forced union states and—put this one in the “unintended consequences” file—may have contributed to President Obama’s re-election.

Speaking of unintended consequences, journalist Tom Gantert recently pointed out that Right to Work states are actually gaining union members while non-Right to Work states are losing hundreds of thousands of union members. “Oklahoma, for example, passed Right to Work in 2001. In 2000, it had 96,000 union members. Slowly the number of union members in Oklahoma has grown to 115,000 in 2012.”

But in the end, the economic arguments are not paramount. In an article entitled “The Ethical Case for Right to Work,” free-market economist Cecil Bohanon, an Okie from Muskogee, said he would support Right to Work even if its economic impact is minimal. “It is a simple matter of justice,” he says.

No doubt Gov. Keating agrees.

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