Wave of teachers' wildcat strikes spreads to Oklahoma and Kentucky

After a successful unofficial strike in West Virginia, educators in Kentucky walked out on Friday and Oklahoma is poised to follow suit

On Easter Sunday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, those not found in the church could be found touring the Woody Guthrie center downtown. Easter weekend is a time for families and this weekend Oklahoma’s have one thing on their mind: on Monday, teachers in over 100 school districts in Oklahoma are poised to go on strike, demanding higher pay.

America is poised to see a wildcat strike wave not seen since the days of the Great Depression when the Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie toured the country, writing songs like This Land is Your Land and Union Maid, inspired by the role of women in a 1940 Oklahoma oil workers’ strike.

Guthrie’s message was not lost on the people touring his museum on Sunday.

“I think today we forget where we come from and I think probably take too much for granted,” said Howard Bowling as he toured the Guthrie Center in downtown, Tusla with his wife and adult children. “I don’t think people realize the sacrifices that were made.”

Woody Guthrie, who wrote Union Maid, inspired by an Oklahoma strike.
Woody Guthrie, who wrote Union Maid, inspired by an Oklahoma strike. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The strike comes at a turning point for teachers across America’s heartland.

On Friday, teachers in Kentucky went out on illegal wildcat strikes in more than 25 counties against the wishes of union leaders to protest against draconian changes to the state’s pensions plan.

The measures passed by the Kentucky legislature last week would raise the eligibility age before teachers can qualify for their pensions, bar future teachers from enjoying traditional pensions in favor of cash balance plans, and even allow lawmakers to unilaterally reduce teachers’ pension plans in violation of previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

The strikers have been buoyed by a successful strike by their peers in West Virginia, their first statewide work stoppage since 1990, which ended with them winning a 5% pay rise and other concessions.

While Oklahoma has the country’s lowest tax on oil and natural gas production, teachers’ salaries remain stubbornly low, at 49th in the nation. According to data provided by the National Education Association (NEA), teachers make $45,276, nearly $13,077 below the nationwide average of $58,353 and well below the nationwide high of New York at $79,152.

The teachers are planning to go out on strike despite the state legislature passing a raise equal to an average $6,000, a raise which teachers called inadequate and would still leave them in the bottom half of the pay scale for states across the country.

“Over a decade of neglect by the legislature has given our students broken chairs in classrooms, outdated textbooks that are duct-taped together, four-day school weeks, classes that have exploded in size and teachers who have been forced to donate plasma, work multiple jobs and go to food pantries to provide for their families,” said the Oklahoma Education Association in a statement. “We are saying enough. No more empty promises. The governor and legislature need to act now to fix this.”

It’s a feeling shared by teachers in places like Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states, who are all also considering action.

The strikes are unique in that they are not being called for by the leadership of the unions, but often through direct appeals of rank-and-file members using social media and their own personal networks to organize across entire states and now the country.

In Oklahoma City, Ed Allen, a veteran union organizer with 26 years under his belt and the head of the state’s largest American Federation of Teachers local in Oklahoma City, initially tried to dissuade his teachers from striking after the state legislature passed the $6,000 raise.

“This social media crowd is adding a different element that I haven’t seen before,” said Allen.

In Kentucky, teachers in Lexington and Louisville decided to go on a wildcat “sick out” on Friday to protest against the state’s legislature draconian pension cuts.

“[Jefferson County Teachers Association] and [Kentucky Education Association] did not call this sick out,” said striking Louisville teacher Kelsey Hayes Cotts. “This call comes from the rank and file. This is a true grassroots movement.”

Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky say that they were inspired by the efforts of teachers in West Virginia, who continued illegal wildcat strikes despite calls from union leaders to return to work.

Parry Casto, from Huntington, West Virginia, leads a rally outside the senate chambers in Charleston last month.
Parry Casto, from Huntington, West Virginia, leads a rally outside the senate chambers in Charleston last month. Photograph: Tyler Evert/AP

Despite being an illegal wildcat strike, the West Virginia teachers’ strike was ultimately successful because of the mass public support it enjoyed. Unlike 10 years ago, when striking workers had a difficult time gauging public support, teachers striking can now tell in real time how supportive their friends and neighbors are when they post picket line photos on Facebook.

More than this, strike leaders from Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky have used social media to directly communicate in real time with teachers in West Virginia to learn lessons to prepare for their strikes.

“A lot of teachers were inspired by what happened in West Virginia,” says Kelsey Hayes Cotts. “I think West Virginia sent a signal to people that this can happen. It works and it sent a signal to the nation.”

Contributor

Mike Elk in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The GuardianTramp

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