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Working In These Times

Thursday, Mar 8, 2018, 3:07 pm

As Goes West Virginia? Oklahoma’s Rank-and-File Teachers Are Gearing up For a Strike.

BY Michael Arria

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Rank-and-file teachers in Oklahoma are inspired by the strike in West Virginia. (West Virginia Education Association / Facebook)  

Drawing inspiration from the victory in West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma are fighting for a raise, and many are prepared to strike if necessary. Their union, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), announced yesterday that, if members’ demands aren’t met, there will be a walkout on April 2.

According to National Education Association data, in 2016 the average teacher’s salary was lower in Oklahoma than in West Virginia. A Spanish teacher named Lilli Lyon recently told the local outlet News 4 that she hasn’t seen a pay increase since 2009, because any raise she’s received has been offset by her rising insurance costs.

Larry Cagle, who has been a public-school teacher in Tulsa for five years, told In These Times that there are a number of parallels between teachers’ conditions in West Virginia and Oklahoma. “You have teachers who are under-paid, a weak union,” said Cagle. “Teachers are in a precarious position. We’re under-funded while watching the economy grow, and we’re being left behind.”

Both West Virginia and Oklahoma are “right to work” states where public employees lack collective bargaining rights. It is illegal for teachers to strike in Oklahoma, just like it was for teachers to strike in West Virginia. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education Law Book, “Any member of an organization engaging in a strike shall be denied the full amount of his wages during the period of such violation. If the organization or its members engage in a strike, then the organization shall cease to be recognized as representative of the unit and the school district shall be relieved of the duty to negotiate with such organization or its representatives.”

If Oklahoma teachers do strike, the action will serve as further confirmation that rank-and-file union members can effectively lead labor fights—defying expectations.

Mainstream media originally reported on Tuesday, February 27 that the West Virginia strike was over. Shortly after the presidents of West Virginia’s two teachers’ unions—the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association—announced that the deal was done at a rally, they were met with loud boos. It turned out that the agreement did not fix the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency, a core demand of the strikers. It also soon became clear that the pay raise the unions had negotiated had not been finalized. While the leadership of the teachers’ unions announced that classes would resume on Thursday, the teachers held votes throughout the state. By the end of Wednesday night, every county had decided to stay on strike. An improved deal wasn’t negotiated until the following Tuesday.

According to Cagle, there’s a similar dynamic at work in Oklahoma. Cagle says he got together with another Oklahoma teacher and developed a plan, banging out the details at a coffee shop. He created an online protest group called Oklahoma Teachers United to help drive a strike. “We felt like we could muster the troops for a strike. We thought we had the critical mass and the rest of the state would follow.”

Additional Facebook groups were developed, and after the OEA was informed that a strike could go down, the union held an emergency meeting to discuss how to proceed. In a Facebook post, the OEA declared that April 23 was “the deadline for lawmakers to fund pay raises and education needs. After that, schools will shut down." After the post received a number of critical comments, OEA bumped the date up to April 2. “I’m pretty happy with that,” Cagle told In These Times, “but we’ve moved into watchdog mode to see what they’ll do next.”

Hours after Cagle spoke with In These Times, the OEA announced that it isn’t only demanding a $10,000 raise for its teachers, but a $7,500 raise for all of the state’s public employees.

Although Cagle acknowledged there is growing anger towards lawmakers in the state, he cautioned against pundits framing these fights as a matter of “Democrats versus Republicans.” “The Dems should have negotiated with us a while ago, but they doubled down here,” he told In These Times. “They’ve played Russian roulette waiting for things to turn for them this way. This is a really conservative state, and we’re trying to push Republicans and Democrats because we’re suffering. I think we got them now.”

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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