- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

In a couple of weeks, voters in Oklahoma will go to the polls to decide an issue that has far-reaching implications for American politics: Should a person be forced to join and pay dues to an organization that supports candidates or political positions he or she opposes?

Most Americans might be surprised to know that in 29 states, including Oklahoma, many workers don't have a choice. As a condition of their employment, they must pay dues to labor unions, even if they don't support the union's positions. What this means in practice is that workers must pay to support lobbying and political candidates they may not agree with.

Only 21 states fully protect workers' freedom of association and expression through right-to-work legislation. On Sept. 25, voters in Oklahoma will have the opportunity to make theirs the 22nd state to guarantee this most basic right by adopting a statewide right-to-work referendum. But passage is an uphill battle, despite polls showing that most Oklahoma voters favor the referendum. The AFL-CIO and union front groups will spend nearly $3 million on television ads alone to defeat this measure — an amazing figure given the small number of union members in the state, about 6.7 percent of Oklahoma's work force. Why? Because they fear right-to-work laws could cripple Big Labor's political influence. And the people most likely to turn out in Oklahoma for this off-year special election will be those with a vested interest: labor union activists.

For decades now, labor unions have been losing members. Unions represent less than 10 percent of workers in the private sector today, down from a high of 35 percent in 1956. But despite the decline in the unions' bargaining power, its political influence has grown exponentially. The AFL-CIO virtually controls the Democrat Party, leading the Wall Street Journal to declare it "America's Labor Party" in a recent editorial. What has made this possible are the bloated coffers of labor unions, which can dispense their members' dues to support the Democrat party and its candidates, get-out-the-vote drives, advocacy ads and lobbying efforts on behalf of Democrat-sponsored legislation. Unions aren't supposed to give dues dollars directly to candidates — but there are as many ways around these prohibitions as there are clever union officials. Some estimates put unions' total political contributions at about $800 million in the last election cycle.

The AFL-CIO doesn't care so much about Oklahoma as it does the possibility that a right-to-work win there might encourage other states to put similar measures on their ballots. Worse, it might light a fire under Republicans in Congress to take on the unions. The last meaningful congressional effort to rein in union power was the Taft-Hartley bill, passed more than 50 years ago, long before unions became the political force they are now. Many members of Congress are terrified of taking on the unions, lest all that union political muscle be turned against them.

The Oklahoma campaign has centered mostly on whether right-to-work status will help or hurt Oklahoma's economy. The unions claim that wages are lower in right-to-work states and that the referendum is just a way for big corporations to increase their profits by paying workers less. The problem with this argument is that wages in neighboring right-to-work states, such as Texas and Kansas, are higher — not lower — than in Oklahoma, not to mention that non-right-to-work states have been losing population and jobs, while most states that protect workers from union coercion have gained both. What's more, almost half of union members now work for government, not private sector employers anyway.

The AFL-CIO implies that being for right-to-work means being against workers' right to join unions. It's just not so. Employees ought to be able to join unions if they choose — and ought not to face reprisals from employers for doing so. But workers in right-to-work states don't lose these rights. On the other hand, workers shouldn't be forced to join unions or to pay for their political or advocacy activities in order to keep their jobs.

Oklahoma is a small state, and the vote on Sept. 25 hasn't attracted a lot of national attention. But Oklahoma voters have an opportunity to strike a blow for personal freedom on Election Day and to do what politicians have been loath to attempt: Turn off the money spigot that feeds directly into the Democrat Party.

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