Oklahoma is a right-to-strike state today
, a member of National Nurses United in Chicago, describes what Oklahoma teachers told her about their struggle and how they organized it during her trip to build solidarity ahead of the April 2 strike by as many as 150,000 workers.
"WE'VE HEARD the pity story. Now we need to go onto the fight story."
Larry Cagle, a high school English teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was sitting in a church meeting room with other members of Oklahoma Teachers United (OTU), looking ahead to the statewide strike they have all been organizing toward for months.
On Monday, April 2, the story moves on.
Educators and public workers will go on strike to demand pay increases and greater state funding for schools and public services--and their unions are calling for workers and their supporters to continue rallying at the state Capitol building in Oklahoma City for as long as it takes to pressure the legislature to meet their demands.
Oklahoma has become the next stop in a grassroots teacher rebellion that began in West Virginia with a wildcat strike by teachers and other education workers that kept the public schools closed in all 55 counties until the state legislature caved and came up with the 5 percent raise that teachers were demanding for themselves and other state workers.
Last Friday, schools in Kentucky closed when furious teachers stayed away from work and instead protested a sneak attack on their pensions by the state legislature. Educators in Arizona have been organizing and may strike themselves.
These eruptions of labor protest took the media by surprise, shining a spotlight on the already-bad-and-getting-worse conditions that educators have had to put up with, especially in the past 10 years since the Great Recession.
They are also showing something else: Workers can take action and fight back, even in "right-to-work" state with draconian anti-labor laws and regulations--and when they do, they get results.
The Oklahoma Education Association--with 12,000 members out of a teaching workforce of 42,000 in the state--has put forward a legislative proposal that would give teachers a $10,000 raise over three years, with $6,000 of it coming in the first year. School support staff would get a $5,000 raise. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association--the union public workers--is pressing for a $7,500 salary increase, also over three years.
These sums might seem large, but the Republican-dominated state government--which hasn't increased educators' pay in 11 years, nor passed an across-the-board hike for public workers in even longer--enacted a law that goes part of the way toward meeting workers' demands.
Under the legislation, which was obviously designed to head off the growing momentum for the April 2 strike, teachers would get an immediate salary increase worth between $5,000 and $6,000, and pay for public employees world rise by between $750 and $2,000 during the year.
This falls short of union demands in various ways, including no mention of salary increases in future years, which the educators are adamant about. There is still the question of increased funding for the state's 550 school districts and 700,000 students to make up the difference after drastic cuts in the past 10 years.
But for a Republican-dominated legislature to make these concessions--and agree to increased taxes by a super-majority vote of three-quarters, the first time this has happened since an anti-tax referendum passed in 1992--is an encouraging sign.
Educators and public employees will go into the April 2 strike knowing they have the power to get a response to their just demands for better pay and better schools.
THE DETERMINATION of Oklahoma teachers is a product of the awful conditions they face, along with the public education system in general.
Oklahoma is a "right-to-work" state along with 28 other states, a number that has only been growing in recent years. The anti-union law passed in 2001 with the justification that the state would become more attractive to business.
As a result of this and the continuing austerity measures that have especially intensified since the 2008-09 economic crisis, working people have been hit with a one-two punch: declining real wages and benefits in both the public and private sector, combined with harsh cutbacks in state government programs.
Since 2008, per-student funding has been cut by over 28 percent, the biggest decline of any state in the nation. In one in five Oklahoma school districts, the school week has been reduced to four days, with longer school days.
With no raises for teachers in more than a decade, Oklahoma educators now have the lowest average pay of any state in the country. There has been a flood of teachers leaving for Texas, educators report. "The cost of living there is very comparable, and [one former colleague] is making $14,000 more a year just by driving four or five hours down that way," one teacher told an Oklahoma news station.
All this explains why teachers like Larry Cagle are determined to see a change. In late March, Cagle was spending his spring break driving around the state, meeting with other educators about the organizing for April 2.
When I first spoke with Cagle after arriving in Oklahoma, he was driving back from a meeting with teachers in a remote area of the Oklahoma panhandle. "Someone threw a rock through the back window of my car" after one of the meetings, Cagle told me.
He thought it was likely a couple of men who sat in the back of the meeting and called themselves "union supporters." "They were probably hired by a local oil refinery," he said, to try to intimidate teachers during the meeting. Still, the meeting "went well and teachers were on board," Cagle said.
Larry was clearly exhausted, but we talked for a half an hour while he drove home. He told me his monthly salary "is about $1,900 per month," which adds up to roughly $23,000 per year. "I have children in college, so it's a good thing my wife also teaches," he said.
I thought back to how much my dad made as a high school history teacher in Milwaukee--he was a union member and his monthly salary was close to what Larry's is today. But that was back in the 1980s, almost 40 years ago. It was shocking to think how teaching, once a stable union job, has now become a path to economic instability.
I got another shock when I met Mickey Miller, a high school economics teacher in Tulsa and co-founder of the OTU with Cagle. Mickey told me the story that he works as both a teacher and a baggage handler for Delta Air Lines:
I start at 6 a.m., go to school and teach. Then, during my prep periods, I go to the airport and sling bags, and when I'm done, I go back to school and coach soccer. I usually get home at 9 p.m.
Is it any wonder that teachers like Mickey Miller have had enough?
BUT THERE'S another side to the story of teachers in Oklahoma--their commitment to organize themselves and fight back.
Late last year, Cagle and Miller met at a Starbucks in Tulsa to form Oklahoma Teachers United. Others came together around the group's Facebook page, which became a platform for organizing teachers, whether they are members of the OEA or not--and in a "right-to-work" state, where less than a third of teachers are members of the OEA, this is critical.
Cagle is one of the main voices of OTU, articulate and determined. But what he says online and in meetings is echoed by many other teachers. OTU meetings like the one I attended in Tulsa have a stream of people coming to ask: "What can I do to help?"
Support for the OTU and its goals goes beyond educators, too. This is because those organizing for action have focused not just on teachers' salaries and conditions, but have made it a point to connect their fight to that of their students and the schools they deserve. While funding for public schools has dropped, there has been a steady increase in enrollment.
This is why many parents and students are with the teachers--a recent poll shows a majority of them in support of educators. On April 2, OTU is organizing a rally at the state Capitol building in Oklahoma City, where they hope to bring out as many students as they can.
Where the struggle goes from here is far from certain, but the lead-up to the April 2 walkout has represented an awakening of ordinary working people to their common grievances with a system that shortchanges them--and their collective power to act for change.
Everyone who wants to see education justice and a revived working class movement needs to support the Oklahoma teachers and public workers.