Oklahoma’s teachers confront the Capitol

By Otis Grotewohl and Molly Matewan

April 2 — Tens of thousands of Oklahoma educators, state workers, parents, students and community members converged today on Oklahoma City, the state capital, to demand adequate funding and resources for public education.

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said to ralliers at the Capitol that educators will remain on strike until they win the full funding they’ve been asking for. Two minutes later, the Oklahoma City school system sent out a robocall that its schools would be closed until teachers return to their classrooms. Picketers circled the building chanting, “Education is a right, that’s why we have to fight.” Spirits were lifted by music from school bands there to support striking teachers, the majority of whom are women.

Hope Davis, a Deaf student and one of the first speakers at the rally, called legislation passed March 28 “a bandaid” when her state needs stitches. The legislation had granted teachers an average $6,000 raise for one year only, and inched up taxes on the oil industry and cigarettes.

Davis said her math class has 40 students, and since her teacher quit, she’s had to take supplemental online courses. Oklahoma teacher salaries are so low, many educators have moved to neighboring states to make a living, leaving Oklahoma schools understaffed with severe turnover problems.

Due to this crisis, pro-union sentiment is on the rise for many community members. A teacher/folk singer known as Mr. Booker told WW that until now “union” had been a bad word in Oklahoma.

Inspired by the nine-day education workers’ strike in West Virginia —represented at today’s rally by West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee — teachers, paraprofessionals and school staff in Oklahoma have been readying picket lines since early March.

Heading into Monday, the first day of walkouts, education workers called for a $10,000 wage increase over a three-year period. Oklahoma teachers last saw a raise in 2008, an increase so paltry they remain some of the lowest paid educators in the U.S. Oklahoma has also experienced significant austerity measures over the last ten years, including a 30 percent cut to the state’s education budget.

An education ‘bandaid’ proposal

At first the revenue package passed on March 28 looked like a victory. Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed off on the first tax increase in Oklahoma in 28 years to partially cover the $6,000 raise for teachers, along with a smaller raise for school support staff.

Teachers forced lawmakers to raise taxes by 5 percent on the oil industry in the revenue package, a victory almost unheard of in a “right-to-work” state, and one West Virginia teachers were unable to replicate. Big Oil has had a stranglehold on Oklahoma for generations.

Educators won that battle, in part, because they were able to clearly identify to lawmakers that money to cover the increase in the education budget should come from oil companies whose taxes remain abysmally low. But the legislative bill left out an additional $200 million for other education funding and $255.9 million for teacher health insurance, funding which rank-and-file educators called a core demand.

As in West Virginia, members of state affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are involved in this fightback.

On Sunday evening, OEA head Priest web-posted a speech: “So why are we walking April 2? Well, there are 700,000 reasons why. Our students and they deserve better! We’ve all heard stories from students, parents, and teachers affected by eleven years of cuts to our classrooms. They see broken chairs in class, outdated textbooks that are duct taped together, and class sizes that have ballooned. Teachers are so drastically underpaid they are forced to donate plasma, work multiple jobs, and go to food pantries to provide for their families.” (tinyurl.com/ybltvzlx)

Rank-and-file militancy within the OEA set April 2 as the deadline for legislators to satisfy the educators’ demands.

Oklahoma City Federation of Teachers President Ed Allen at first advised teachers to accept the $6,000 pay increase, describing this as a “down payment” on public education. But after further inspection of the bill’s language, and encouragement from the rank and file, Allen and others are taking a more proactive approach.

AFT President Randi Weingarten commented in an April 2 NPR interview: “[The legislature] took from one education pot to give to another education pot, as opposed to lifting up the dollars that were needed for kids in public education.” Weingarten said of teacher activism: “The era of passive resignation is over. In the wake of Janus, we will see more and more and more of this.” Janus vs. AFSCME, the potentially union-busting case affecting public sector workers, was heard Feb. 26 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and will be decided in June.

Oklahoma educators also judged the proposed pay increase as inadequate because raises for paraprofessionals and school staff were less than for teachers, setting workers against each other. Special education aides, for example, sometimes make less than $10 an hour, and would have a smaller raise than teachers they share classrooms with.

This legislative strategy could be an attempt by state governments to weaken solidarity among education workers and ultimately diminish the power of their unions. In West Virginia, education workers fought for and won the same raise for everyone regardless of position, whether teacher, cafeteria worker or bus driver.

Groundswell of labor struggle in ‘right-to-work’ states

Oklahoma educators have seen an outpouring of solidarity from union siblings locally and beyond. In a state with less than 6 percent of its workers unionized, Oklahoma City Teamsters joined teachers at the Capitol to amplify their demands.

The Facebook page “I Support Oklahoma Teachers” reported unions of iron workers and operating engineers standing in solidarity as well. “It looks like construction sites across the state will be shutting down on Monday,” a post claimed on Saturday. Local press have largely covered the strike positively, and communities across the state have voiced their support for educators taking a stand.

Many educators in Republican-dominated right-to-work states view the education workers’ strike in West Virginia as a wake-up call, and it’s not difficult to see why. The material conditions in classrooms in Oklahoma and West Virginia are very similar, and share many characteristics with classrooms in Kentucky and Arizona.

Oklahoma teachers’ pay is ranked 49th in the U.S. according to the NEA, below West Virginia teachers at 48th and Arizona teachers at 43rd. All three states, and many more, have passed predatory right-to-work laws, rooted in Jim Crow racism, that abolish collective bargaining rights of workers, outlaw strikes and remove requirements that bosses must negotiate a contract.

Kentucky teachers forced the closing of more than 20 schools on March 30, after legislators passed a surprise pension “reform” bill, effectively raiding teacher pensions. Educators and supporters continued their protest in Kentucky on April 2, closing schools in 21 counties, and lining the stairwells and balcony in the House and Senate chambers of the Capitol building in Frankfort. Kentucky educators have committed to continuing actions until the bill is reversed.

About 2,500 Arizona teachers rallied in the capital of Phoenix on March 28, demanding a 20 percent raise and an education budget increase from a hostile legislature. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stated categorically that he won’t consider educators’ demands. Because of this standoff, Arizona teachers could be the next to strike.

On March 19, with broad community and student support, members of the Jersey City Education Association won a one-day strike for better pay, health care and dignity. On the same day, teachers in Puerto Rico struck in a fierce battle against U.S. colonialism and privatization. U.S. struggles are now part of an international movement of educators from England to Puerto Rico, Argentina to France.

In every state where right-to-work laws exist, bosses have forced a race to the bottom for workers in terms of wages and benefits. State politicians — reactionary Republicans and capitalist Democrats alike — have cut public services for decades through austerity measures.

With the elimination of collective bargaining through right-to-work laws, educators are fighting directly with state governments to obtain the education funding that they, their students and their communities deserve.

Teachers have harnessed the potential of social media to counter corporate media that promote the bourgeois concept that educators are “greedy and selfish.” Educators are spreading their rank-and-file-driven movements to other workers across the country.

Education workers are clearly stating that they want dignity and respect, accessible health care and decent pay, like all working people around the world. They are broadcasting to a global audience the need for a fuller understanding of the austerity cuts promoted by Big Oil, Big Banks and Big Business — cuts that demand, in turn, the solidarity of worker actions and strikes.

On the ground in Oklahoma

A solidarity delegation of Workers World Party members landed in Oklahoma City April 1 in time to participate in the rally at the Capitol. The delegation brought signs, banners, flyers, WW papers and their energy to support Oklahoma educators, students, parents and community members.

Delegation member Ben commented: “We hope to build greater solidarity between the struggle here and other workers and oppressed people in the U.S., across the globe, and especially the struggles by Indigenous peoples here in Oklahoma.”

“We’re excited to be here watching this unfold and seeing union activism and solidarity across all job titles. Workers are making a big leap in their state,” said Sara, a teacher and parent activist. “People want to read the WW issue with the Puerto Rico teachers’ strike as the cover story. Teachers here know they’re part of something bigger. There’s a working-class understanding that oil millionaires are making decisions that harm children​, which shows in the speeches and signs like ‘Make Oil and Gas Pay.’ People know who they’re fighting against!”

The delegation ​will be in the state through April 4 and ​is posting about the walkout on social media using #OKWalk4Kids. For more information, please visit: StandWithTeachers.org.

Workers World Party Strike Support members on the ground in Oklahoma provided rally details for this article.

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