In Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and other conservative states, teachers have led innovative forms of resistance. The following are the lessons I take from the Sooner State’s nine-day walkout. In a nutshell, educators should celebrate the walkout’s victories, put divisiveness aside and organize a Big Tent response to the disastrous last decade.
Progress requires unity
First, unity is required for progress toward a meaningfully better future. Many rank-and-file teachers are frustrated with the decisions to return to school, but several key points must be emphasized:
- In the beginning, it took both the threat of a walkout and an initiative petition to raise the gross production tax incentive rate on oil and gas to persuade the Legislature to increase teachers’ wages.
- Now, energies must be devoted to defeating an initiative backed by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn that would de-fund the pay increase.
- This effort has great potential for building unity among education allies and dividing their opponents. (The same applies to the need for citizen actions to end the constitutional requirement for a 75 percent supermajority to raise taxes and to curtail extreme gerrymandering.)
Support educators’ allies
Second, none of the recent victories would have been possible without the support of local school boards and district administrations (not to mention students and parents). As it became clear that no new money will be appropriated, teachers supported their allies in keeping the rest of the school year from degenerating into chaos. Allied support should continue.
Keep public employees in mind
Third, in an April 12 article on NewsOK.com, Oklahoma Public Employees Association’s executive director Sterling Zearley was quoted as saying:
Recent discussions focus solely on education funding and exclude public safety, veterans’ services, mental health, protective services or any other state agency services.
Given the legal and political complexities of the educators’ actions, that mistake probably was inevitable. As of 2016, however, the state agencies that provide the most important social and medical services had been cut by one-quarter to one-third of their 2009 levels. So, teachers should remember the needs of state employees – who pulled out of the walkout just before the OEA announced its official end – and focus on the overall needs of students and families in the public-employment sphere.
Timing of the end unimportant
Fourth, worrying whether the walkout was stopped a little early or late is pointless. On Sunday, a prayer vigil at the Capitol drew hundreds of supporters. Monday’s crowd was reportedly even bigger than the 30,000 to 35,000 people who came to each of the first week’s events, as thousands of education supporters marched from Edmond, Del City and Norman. The next day, a group of marchers arrived on foot from Tulsa. On Thursday, Moore schools reopened, but hundreds of teachers stayed out of class and marched to the Capitol anyway.
(At the end of the first week, I expected the union leaders to stress the $40 million in additional taxes that had passed when calling for an end to the walkout. The fervor of the teachers at the Capitol, however, made that impossible. Besides, protest plans had already been made for the next week.)
Had the walkout ended after one week, teachers could have proclaimed a clear win, but those powerful, consciousness-raising demonstrations would not have happened.
Make the most of social media
And that leads to the final two, interconnected points: As a new era of labor activism is being born, Oklahoma unions and older activists need to invest more in social media and other 21st-century forms of networking.
In a bonus for doing so, more Oklahomans could enjoy one of the great things about the teachers rally: teacher-activist Aaron Baker’s adaptation of Union Maid (see video above) and other updates of Woody Guthrie’s classic songs.