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Oklahoma teachers set a strike date, April 2, as educator unrest spreads across U.S.

Oklahoma teachers set a strike date, April 2, as educator unrest spreads across U.S.
Alberto Morejon, a teacher and administrator in Stillwater, Okla. (Doug Hoke / Associated Press)

Stillwater, Okla., teacher Alberto Morejon was sitting on his couch, watching TV news coverage of the teachers' strike in West Virginia, when he thought: Something also needs to be done at home, where teachers have similarly low pay.

Morejon wasn't a power player in the labor movement. But he created a Facebook group titled Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time Is Now! and tens of thousands of people joined within a few days.

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And in a sign of social media's influence on the labor unrest spreading among educators across the U.S., Morejon was with union leaders Thursday who presented a demand to Oklahoma legislators: Raise teachers' pay by April 1, or teachers statewide will go on strike on April 2.

"Oklahoma educators have reached a breaking point," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Assn., which represents teachers across the state, and which unveiled its strike strategy at a televised news conference.

"Believe me, we want to be in our classrooms," Priest said. "We do not want to shut down schools and leave our classrooms to come to the Capitol. But we will. Today, we're putting lawmakers on notice."

Strike fever appears to be catching on among public-school workers in conservative states where lawmakers have curtailed the strength of public-sector unions.

That might seem paradoxical. But as it turns out, weakened unions are not necessarily the same thing as weakened workers.

As the Supreme Court mulls a ruling that might deal a blow to public-sector unions across the U.S., the teachers' discontent has showcased a model for the kind of worker militancy that might await conservative policymakers hoping to weaken public-sector unions.

In West Virginia and Oklahoma, many rank-and-file teachers have spoken of reaching a breaking point, where low pay has driven educators to abandon their classrooms and where raises get swallowed by rising insurance premiums and other expenses.

"We're coming out of recessionary times, and states have not built back up their funding. It's kind of a boiling point," said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. "There's a whole question around, how do teacher and unions express their voice?"

Oklahoma teachers rank 49th in the nation in pay, with average salaries of $45,276, according to the National Education Assn., a teachers union. West Virginia ranks 48th, and Mississippi ranks 50th.

At Thursday's news conference, Mannford, Okla., pre-kindergarten teacher Kim Morris said that her budget-strapped school keeps the lights on for only part of the school day and keeps the temperature at 63 degrees to save on energy costs.

"We've come to the point where if the Legislature will not do its job, I will walk," Morris said.

The teachers' frustration, often voiced on Facebook, has at points driven them to bypass union leaders to push for more radical showdowns with the state lawmakers who control their pay. And teachers in other conservative states like Arizona and Kentucky are watching closely.

"The fact that this is coming up from below is enormously interesting," said Jon Shelton, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has studied teachers' strikes. "We're seeing this in red states, we're seeing this in states where teachers don't have the right to collectively bargain."

In recent months, many labor watchers issued warnings that the power of public-sector unions was about to take a major blow.

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The Supreme Court appears poised to rule against the mandatory fees that some public-sector unions impose on all workers, whether they support unions or not. The loss of fees might hobble funding for those unions, who often support Democratic politicians.

The constitutionality of those fees is being evaluated on free-speech grounds. But when the Supreme Court unanimously upheld such fees in 1977, its opinion spoke of the importance of such policies for maintaining "labor peace" between workers and their employers.

Lawmakers crafted such policies in the early 20th century to regulate disputes that sometimes led to disruptive and even violent work stoppages, particularly in states such as West Virginia, where miners famously battled coal companies.

Last month, many West Virginia teachers — who also organized on Facebook — hearkened back to the days of coal strikes as they wore the miners' red bandannas and ignored state Supreme Court precedent that said public workers had no right to strike.

Every school across the state was shut down, forcing thousands of students to stay home. And state lawmakers discovered the downside of dealing with a decentralized worker uprising: When they tried to reach a deal with union leaders to bring the stoppage to an end, teachers voted to override their own leaders and to prolong the strike.

"It's impossible to fire or replace that many people in such a crucial part of people's everyday lives," Shelton said. "You can't fire 20,000 teachers, and you certainly can't arrest 20,000 teachers."

Teachers unions are similarly limited in Oklahoma, and unrest is similarly spreading at the grass-roots level. On the Oklahoma Education Assn.'s Facebook page, teachers publicly voiced their displeasure when the union originally posted a notice about a later walkout date. (The post was later deleted.)

"You are not listening to your members," one teacher posted. "I'm extremely disappointed in you all," a second added. "You're with us, or you're against us. Reconsider your position OEA," a third wrote.

One of the most vocal supporters of a teachers' strike, Larry Cagle, 54, a high school teacher in Tulsa, isn't even a union member.

"It was apparent to me, very clear to me, when I got to Oklahoma that unions have lost the battle long ago and they weren't effective," Cagle said, adding that he was in unions in Florida and New York. "As my tenure within the school system here grew, it was clear there was a real big problem in education."

Going outside of the traditional union structure, Cagle began organizing on his own, speaking with other teachers in Tulsa to push a more strident message to union leadership.

"We want a strike," Cagle said.

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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