OKLAHOMA CITY — The state's voters have approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits mandatory union dues, making Oklahoma the first state in 15 years to pass a "right to work" law and bolstering a national push for others to follow suit.
The outcome was a victory for business interests in their battle against labor that became Oklahoma's most expensive election campaign ever.
Unofficial results from Tuesday's election show the measure won with 54 percent of the vote, to 46 percent against.
"This is affirmation of Oklahoma's greatness, Oklahoma's willingness to change, to become a renaissance state," said Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican who had been pushed for a right-to-work law since he took office in 1995.
Keating was one of several Republican leaders who actively campaigned in support of the proposal, along with chambers of commerce officials across the state.
The governor argued that Oklahoma's lack of such a law gave neighboring right-to-work states such as Kansas, Arkansas and Texas an edge in competition for new industry.
Spending by both sides in the campaign totaled more than $10 million, primarily to finance an advertising blitz containing conflicting statistics on the economic impact of such a law.
The decision makes Oklahoma the 22nd state to enact such a law. The last state to ban labor contracts that require all workers to pay union dues or representation fees was Idaho, in 1986.
Right-to-work forces hoped to use the Oklahoma victory to boost efforts to pass similar laws in Colorado, Kentucky, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Montana, said Barry Kelly, spokesman for the National Right-to-Work committee, based in Springfield Va. Kansas already is a right-to-work state.
"It always helps us when we win one," Kelly said. "We have gradually built up our support in state legislatures."
Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO and an opponent of the measure, said the anti-right-to-work campaign picked up speed after early polls showed public sentiment strongly in favor of right-to-work. But in the end, the plan received 446,936 votes in favor and 378,236 against.
"Over 350,000 Oklahomans believed our message," Curry said. "We have to back up and regroup."
The election was a rematch of a right-to-work battle 37 years earlier, which the unions won by fewer than 25,000 votes.
This time , opponents argued that right-to-work laws mainly attract low-wage companies. The opposition coalition, Vote No on 695, featured small business people, teachers, firefighters and others and was largely financed by unions.