Learning lessons from the Oklahoma walkouts

April 25, 2018

Elizabeth Lalasz and Sean Larson consider what was won and what wasn't after weeks of school walkouts and mass protests at the Capitol that shook Oklahoma.

THE APRIL rebellion of the teachers in the "right-to-work" state of Oklahoma has turned politics and life upside down in a once-reliably conservative state.

Walkouts starting April 2 closed schools across the state, and tens of thousands of people descended on the Capitol building for daily protests.

Even before the strike started, the state legislature passed a bill to increase teachers' salaries immediately by $6,000. That was a huge concession toward the teachers' demands--and previously unthinkable in a state where Republican rule has brought a vicious austerity offensive.

But it wasn't enough to head off the teachers' rebellion. At their peak, the walkouts shut down two-thirds of the state's schools, affecting 500,000 students and disrupting the normal rhythm of communities.

Even so, teachers enjoyed widespread support throughout the walkout movement. At the end of the first week, the latest poll indicated that 72 percent of Oklahoma voters supported the teachers.

There was concern about the turnout for the crucial second Monday of the walkouts on April 9, but in the end, this proved to be the largest and most robust day of action of all, with 50,000 people attending the Capitol protests.

Oklahoma teachers on the march during the walkout days
Oklahoma teachers on the march during the walkout days

Yet by the end of the week, there were signs of weakness. Worst of all, the biggest of the state teachers' unions, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), pulled its support for the walkouts--to the anger of teachers, both OEA members and not.

Rank-and-file teachers--who all along had been the driving force in the upsurge, not the union--organized a meeting of building representatives the next day at the Capitol to gauge reaction to the OEA capitulation.

A survey went out to teachers, and when the results were tabulated by Sunday, 88.3 percent of the building reps supported continuing the walkout. They estimated that support in their buildings and communities remained at over 60 percent.

Nevertheless, the survey and subsequent statements by the grassroots teachers' groups emphasized schools sending smaller delegations for the Capitol protests and "passing the torch" to parents and students to pressure the legislature. By April 16, the third Monday after the walkouts began, schools were reopening across the state.

FOR MANY teachers, this ending tarnished the stunning show of their power that was mobilized in early April--and the achievement, even before the walkouts started, of a $6,000 pay raise in a state where the minimum salary for teachers ranges as low as $31,000 a year.

"A lot of teachers I talk to were suffering in silence before the walkout," says Jason Lightle, a teacher in McAlester and a part of the teacher upsurge from its early days.

"But with all the issues being brought to national attention and the results only being as limited as they are, it has them feeling insulted. It's one thing to be silently unappreciated; It's something quite different to be directly and unequivocally insulted."

Few people would have imagined the arrogant Republicans agreeing to the big pay raise when the first teachers started talking and organizing. But other goals of teachers, students and parents have not been met.

Educators want a guarantee of future salary increases for themselves and other school workers, and the legislature has yet to do anything to restore funding after years of cuts that led to a shocking 26.9 percent decline in per-student spending on public education.

This is partly the result of Republicans refusing to budge after passing the pay increase legislation. For example, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed the repeal of the state's hotel/motel tax, one of the key funding sources that teachers and the OEA wanted tapped to increase money for schools. Republican lawmakers shut down an attempt to get a vote on a state capital gains tax.

But the turning point was clearly the OEA withdrawing its support for the walkouts. Grassroots teachers' groups, organized around Facebook pages, had given the walkout movement enough energy to close schools in early April, but the organizational infrastructure didn't exist to carry on the sickouts and other actions on a statewide basis after the OEA pulled out.

This isn't the end of the struggle, however. Like in West Virginia and elsewhere, large numbers of teachers rose to the occasion of organizing a statewide struggle, even in the difficult circumstances of a "right-to-work" state. They will be better prepared to continue the fight in the next rounds of the struggle.

And for teachers and labor activists everywhere, there are valuable lessons to be learned from understanding how this fight took shape.

FROM BOTTOM-of-the-barrel teacher pay to atrocious working conditions, Oklahoma teachers didn't lack for reasons to strike.

Like in West Virginia, the 42,000 teachers in Oklahoma aren't paid nearly enough--and the schools they teach in aren't adequately resourced--to create the hospitable and supporting educational environments students deserve.

Unlike West Virginia, however, Oklahoma teachers don't have recent strong historical traditions of union organization and struggle. Only 28 percent of the state's teachers are organized in the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the OEA. Another 6 percent, primarily in Oklahoma City, are organized in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

This is why much of the organizing for the walkout movement emerged through Facebook groups, such as Oklahoma Teachers United (OTU), founded in November 2017 by Larry Cagle and Mickey Miller, and Oklahoma Teacher Walkout (OTW), founded in early 2018 by Alberto Morejon.

As West Virginia's statewide strike movement started making news, teachers connecting with each other through these groups began calling for sick-outs of teachers and student demonstrations to draw attention to the atrocious conditions in schools.

The OEA was pressured into setting a strike date and then moving it up to April 2, with the state union president appearing alongside Larry Cagle at a press conference to announce the date.

If there was any doubt about the determination of teachers and their supporters, they were settled on April 2. Some 30,000 swarmed the Capitol building in Oklahoma City.

As in West Virginia, schools were declared closed by local officials when teachers calling in sick couldn't be replaced. Students organized themselves to attend the rallies at the Capitol.

If anything, the resolve of teachers hardened in that first week--in part because of bitterness at Republican lawmakers, who at times openly insulted the widely supported teachers.

But it was the mobilizations in Oklahoma City that drove the struggle. The sheer size and sustained nature of the rallies inside and outside the Capitol had a galvanizing effect on any participant. Teachers, parents, students and supporters saw their grievances and demands met with support day after day.

Still, the question of organization proved to be a key weakness that increased in importance as the walkout continued. The lack of a strike fund meant that many teachers couldn't afford bus tickets or gas to get to the Capitol rallies. Others couldn't travel because they needed their hours at the second and third jobs that many held.

Despite increasing pressure, educators were still ready to mobilize. In Moore, outside of Oklahoma City, hundreds of teachers defied the superintendent's plan to reopen schools on Wednesday and rallied at the Capitol.

But by the middle of the second week, the OEA--which had been dragged by the OTU and the militant sentiment from below at every step of the way--began to cave.

ON WEDNESDAY, OEA President Alicia Priest, pressured by teachers at the Capitol, stated on video: "We have not called anything off...We have the permits for next week. This is not done."

But the next day, Priest announced the union was throwing in the towel, stating at a press conference: "Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out onto the grounds of this Capitol for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday."

The announcement came without consultation of the OEA membership--and despite the fact that an opinion poll from the previous weekend found that 72 percent of Oklahoma residents supported the continuation of the walkout until the teachers won all of their demands.

"I mean, it's all for nothing. They gave up," Kellie Tatum, a Tulsa teacher, said in an interview with a local television station.

Another OEA member from Tulsa, Gabrielle Price, posted a video on social media expressing her rage at the union and her determination to be at the Capitol the next Monday to continue protesting:

I'm upset, I'm tired, I'm frustrated. I was used, I was thrown under the bus, and I was misrepresented. I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am a person who votes for what's right and what presses on my soul. This was NEVER about an agenda for the teachers!

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2309 in Oklahoma City, representing several thousand teachers, surveyed its members on whether or not to continue the walkout into the next week--the results showed two-thirds in favor.

Local officials tried negotiating with the Oklahoma City school district to cancel classes for that coming Monday. The AFT's action seemed like it might have the potential to galvanize the discontent of other teachers into a more cohesive force for the following week.

On the Sunday before April 16, the OTU teachers' group posted a joint video statement with the Begging for Education Facebook group, started by Tulsa third-grade teacher Teresa Danks, which expressed disappointment in the OEA leadership for pulling out of the walkout, while vowing to maintain a teachers' presence at the Capitol the next day.

A post on the OTU Facebook page reflected this sentiment:

This was an awful decision by OEA. But we are not surprised. Betrayed, but not surprised. The leadership from OTU can push for Tulsa Public School (TPS) closures, but we will need the rest of the state to follow. Are there protest leaders in Muskogee, Okmulgee, Lawton, Guymon, McAlester who will join us in keeping these schools closed?

THE POTENTIAL for the walkouts to continue with the OEA opposing them would depend on the organizing capacity on the ground. Unfortunately, this was weak.

Surveys and polls measured strong support among teachers and others for continuing the walkout. But no direction was given on how to organize co-workers through sickouts or otherwise continue to keep the schools closed.

What's more, the stakes for advocating walkouts without the backing of a union raised the potential for repercussions for individual teachers. Since the end of the walkout, teachers who led the movement at the grassroots, like OTU co-founders Mickey Miller and Larry Cagle, have both been threatened and faced discipline from their school districts.

Another factor deserves to be mentioned: On April 11, as the battle over the future of the walkout movement was reaching a critical point, the two-day period for candidates to file for the November elections began.

Although lobbying the legislature and calls to "remember in November" always played a role among teachers, this represented a concrete pull on activism. Many teachers and their supporters understandably wanted to make the Republicans pay in the election--but more of the social media posts among teachers and other activists revolved around instructions on how to file to become a candidate.

In the end, a record 794 candidates signed up to run for state and federal office--a sure sign of the political discontent galvanized by the teachers' struggle. But this took away time and resources at exactly the point when teachers who wanted to continue the struggle needed to be organizing.

In any event, by April 16, the primary source of teachers' strength--the statewide school shutdowns--sank into the background, despite renewed calls for rallies at the Capitol to lobby legislators.

NONE OF this diminishes the importance of what teachers, students, parents and their supporters have accomplished already in Oklahoma--nor what they can hope to achieve in the future.

The walkout movement shows that if you organize and fight back, even in difficult circumstances, winning is possible. The teachers have unachieved goals in terms of school funding and pay increases for other state employees. But the concession of a $6,000 immediate raise is a crucial example of the power of working people when they credibly threaten to strike and disrupt business as usual.

Unlike in West Virginia, Oklahoma legislators refused to budge after the walkouts began. For many teachers, this will contribute to disillusionment with more liberal conceptions of legislative neutrality and social change based on dialogue and simply speaking truth to power.

By contrast, the alternative of mass action to demand change was shown to be powerful in winning some concessions--and it contributed to the other essential ingredient in the struggle: of people from all across the state coming together and recognizing the importance of unity and solidarity in struggling for their collective demands.

As Jason Lightle said in an interview:

Teachers in my circle aren't as concerned with getting the raise in August as they are with continuing to live in a state that has active groups trying to devalue and dismantle the education system. The teachers who are leaving are typically young and parents. So Oklahoma is not only losing valuable teachers with long careers ahead of them; Oklahoma is also losing the children of educated citizens...

Combining all of these issues makes it look like Oklahomans are in for a long battle if they are going to be successful in pulling out of this nosedive.

Crucially, many of the obstacles to the struggle in Oklahoma arose because of the lack of an organizing infrastructure. They were present at the beginning of the fight with the question of how to shut down schools, but became obvious in later phases as teachers confronted the question of how to continue the when union leaders wanted to the plug.

The hastily assembled network of building representatives that met at the Capitol on the Friday after the OEA backed down was an astounding feat for teachers who had only met each other months or weeks or even days before.

But these were unable to fill the vacuum that existed without sustainable, democratic and trusted decision-making structures--one of the most basic functions that a union is supposed to provide.

Without this, when superintendents wavered and opened up the schools, teachers and their supporters were more likely to feel that they had no other choice but to return to work, even if they favored a more radical course of action.

These questions aren't unique to Oklahoma, though. And after going through this experience, more and more teachers will be prepared to be the leaders of the future who push for solidarity and militancy as the only way to win.

What the Oklahoma movement demonstrates, above all else, is that the power of workers lies in themselves--to organize together on the basis of unity and solidarity.

Hannah Utain-Evans contributed to this article.

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