Governor Frank Keating and the Right to Work

By Brandon Dutcher

When Oklahomans (and Americans) think of former Governor 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 Governor 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 Governor 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.

 He knew that college graduates… should not be forced to join a labor union against their will.

Governor Keating understood “the importance of freedom in the labor market,” Congressman Jim Bridenstine reminded us in the March 8 chapel service dedicating the Keating Center.“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 Governor 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, Governor 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 teaching.

It’s also inconsistent with economic growth, as Governor 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 pointed out last month 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 “The Ethical Case for Right to Work,” free-market economist Cecil Bohanon, an Okie from Muskogee, says “the scholarly literature is not definitive as to the impact of Right to Work.” But even if its economic impact is minimal, Bohanon says he supports Right to Work. “It is a simple matter of justice,” he says. No doubt Governor Keating agrees.

A personal note: The Right to Work campaign produced several great television commercials, one of which featured an Oklahoma Wesleyan University graduate named Susie Dutcher and her beautiful children. At the victory party, an ebullient Governor Keating told me how great Susie’s ad was. The campaign’s pollster told me the ad demonstrably moved the polling numbers.

About Guest Author: Brandon Dutcher

Brandon Dutcher

Dutcher is vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank. A Bartlesville native, Dutcher received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oklahoma. He received a master’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public policy from Regent University. Dutcher is listed in the Heritage Foundation Guide to Public Policy Experts and is editor of the bookOklahoma Policy Blueprint, which was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman as “thorough, well-informed, and highly sophisticated.” His articles have appeared in Investor’s Business DailyWORLD magazine, the Sacramento Bee, The Oklahoman, and more than 190 newspapers throughout Oklahoma and the U.S. He and his wife, Susie, have six children and are members of Heritage Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Edmond.

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2 Responses to “Governor Frank Keating and the Right to Work”

  1. Frank Keating

    I am flattered and impressed by you and your wonderfully presented piece. You are a star in a hugely important firmament of bright, decent, thoughtful and important conservative intellectuals.
    Thanks for all that you do and continue to do.
    All the vey best.
    Frank Keating

  2. D Bro

    What timing! I just heard Jim Marshall speak on this issue tonight. I believe he helped write the legislation after pushing the issue like the governor did. I have never been a member of a union but wages in this country have not even kept up with inflation. I have never felt the union a threat but I know there have been real live cases to fear them as Jim pointed out.