We’re driven by a sense of inequity

March 12, 2018

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) set an April 2 strike deadline following a groundswell for bold action to win a statewide pay increase for teachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the U.S. The state public employees union announced that it will join the strike if its own pay demands aren't met.

The Oklahoma teachers' strike movement began in late 2017 when rank-and-file activists calling themselves Oklahoma Teachers United made contact via Facebook and began comparing notes and talking strategy. While pay is a central issue, many pro-strike teacher activists are also incensed over rising corporate influence over school policy and the proliferation of charter schools.

The opening days of the West Virginia teachers strike in February inspired the activists to call for a similar action of their own--and they informed both the OEA and school officials of their plan. By the time OEA announced an April 24 strike date as a last resort following a moderate action campaign, Oklahoma Teachers United and other teachers organizing on Facebook had tens of thousands of followers. With rank-and-file momentum building, activists called for organizing meeting March 7 to push for an April 2 strike.

Hours before that meeting took place, the OEA dropped its earlier plan and embraced the April 2 strike deadline to demand increases in school funding and pay totaling $800 million. Next came the March 10 announcement by leaders of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA) that its members will join a strike April 2 if the state legislature fails to approve $213 million increase in pay.

Larry Cagle, a high school English teacher in Tulsa and a founder of Oklahoma Teachers United, spoke to Lee Sustar about the battle ahead.

WHAT IS driving the movement of Oklahoma teachers?

THE SENSE of inequity. There is just a lack of parity when you compare it to the rest of the country. Teacher salaries in Oklahoma are $12,000 less than in Arkansas and $15,000 less than in Texas.

That's a difficult number to get your head around when you're making $34,000 per year. We need, at a minimum, a one-third jump in wages. Most of us are living near the poverty line: $30,000 in Oklahoma if you are supporting children. That's an impossible position to be in when you have a profession and you have a degree. You realize how hard you are suffering. And if that's not enough, we aren't retaining the best teachers.

Oklahoma, in terms of its GDP, ranks in the middle of states in the U.S. However, teachers are paid at the bottom. But we're not a poor state. We are an oil-rich state.

School superintendents are paid at levels similar to the middle of the country. What is also a little embarrassing is that our principals are paid as if they are in the middle of the U.S. I think that's hush money.

Oklahoma teachers rally for a fair contract
Oklahoma teachers rally for a fair contract

WHY HAS this situation developed?

THERE IS an intentional desire by legislators to underfund our schools so they fail, and replace them with private industry. We call them charter schools, but they are businesses.

They want to say, "Look at what we're doing for poor Black children." They don't say, "We want to take your worst performing students and do miracles with them." No. They say, "We will interview each child and select them on their ability to succeed in our environment." They behave exactly like private schools, but we fund them like public schools.

Our superintendent in Tulsa, Deborah Gist, comes from the pro-charter Broad Foundation.

In my city, there has been overt action to close public schools and replace with private schools, without the intent to fund schools that are struggling. One is McLain High School, a predominately African American school that's had 30 years of underfunding. It's classic Oklahoma racism.

The solution is to place another high school down the street to compete with it. Why would you pay for another building and another principal to take the cream of the crop of students? Why wouldn't we take the money and reduce class sizes significantly?

Unless you're of that ilk that says private schools are superior.

HOW HAS the OEA, your union, responded to your efforts?

THE UNION objects to our existence. They believe we have personal goals and grandiose ideas. I do not. I agreed to go through this process because I believe we can convince legislators to do the right thing. I'm just an English teacher, but I feel I have a mandate.

The union did a climate survey, and 80 percent of teachers say they want to go on strike and 75 percent of parents say they would agree to a teachers' strike.

The union is always two steps behind us. They're meeting to figure out how to roll out a strike plan. I'm pleased by that--that's how it should be. Our movement has the ear of the constituents. We can type in a message, and get all 40,000 teachers in Oklahoma to respond.

WHAT IMPACT has the West Virginia teachers strike had on Oklahoma teacher activists?

WEST VIRGINIA: God bless them. We've had thousands upon thousands of messages from West Virginia. I have been in touch with some of the leaders there about what mistakes to avoid. One of them was how important it is for us to be united.

In West Virginia, you have politicians clinging to gas money and teachers so despondent and downtrodden. It's the same in Oklahoma. Teachers are beaten down with a feeling nothing can be done. And then, a sudden surge.

The history of capitalism is riddled with this. The capitalists control so much so people surrender to it. I saw in the West Virginia story how hard it was to come out.

HOW DID a strike date get set for April 2?

THE UNION wanted to strike in late April, which was ludicrous. We went out--about 150 of us--school by school, asking people to sign a paper if they agreed to go out. We said: "When you go down to the hall, tell the union rep: If we walk, will you go with us?"

The OEA had to get in front of us. I don't want to fight with the union. I want them to do what the vast majority of the teachers want them to do. I will tell you I don't trust them. I think there was a possibility they would trick us. I wonder if they have a watered-down deal already.

Our demand is $5,000 before August, and another $5,000 within the next three years. We're looking to align pay to our neighboring states.

HOW DID you get involved in the labor movement?

I WENT to college in New York City, and I was in the hotel workers' union.

Then I moved to Florida and became part of teachers' unions there. They understood we aren't friends of management. When management goes home at night, they think about how to make more money from us. They' re clearly the enemy. If the union didn't exist, they would take advantage.

I'm a fiscal conservative. I believe in the beauty of capitalism. But capitalism without controls is an oligarchy. We are not free market. We have a controlled market by a small number of people.

One of our school board members works for one of the private schools operating in our district. But you can't be a teacher and be on the school board. If that is the case, how can [a school employer] be on? That is collusion.

We've fallen asleep and allowed the enemy to take over the schools.

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