As Payday Hits & Strike Deadline Looms, Labor Divided in Oklahoma Over Taking “$6,000 raise”

(Tulsa World)

The Oklahoma Senate and State House have passed a $6,000 pay raise and it appears that teachers’ unions in the state are divided about whether to engage in a potentially illegal walkout on Monday, April 2nd.

The offer is $4,000 less a year than teachers initially requested and the labor movement appears divided with the 2,500-member Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers local saying they won’t strike. Meanwhile, rank and file from the much larger Oklahoma Education Association have declared strikes in over 100 districts of the state’s 500 school districts beginning Monday.

In West Virginia, early strikes in counties like Logan and Mingo helped prep the union for a big wave of strikes sometimes in opposition to labor leaders wishes.

Questions also remain about whether the promised raises are really paid for and whether they could be repealed later when the national spotlight doesn’t shine as brightly on Oklahoma.

Yesterday, former Democrat turned Republican Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma signed a $447 million dollar tax increase. It was the first time since 1990 that taxes were raised in the conservative-dominated state, which has one of the lowest taxes on oil and gas industry —  2% compared to 12% in energy giant North Dakota.

“We finally have made it,” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin told assembled reporters at a press conference in Oklahoma state’s capital, Oklahoma City, yesterday.

”I’m joined by Republican and Democratic legislators, and teachers,” said Fallin. “And I want to thank our legislative leaders for their hard work that they put in.”

“This is a very historic moment in Oklahoma. We achieved something we thought might be impossible, took many different tries, putting packages together in many different ways to have sufficient revenue to be able to take care of core government services and pay for a teacher pay raise in the state of Oklahoma, and also to put Oklahoma on a more solid foundation for the future,” said Fallin.

Edmond Public Schools spokeswoman Susan Parks-Schlepp, who previously withdrew the district’s threat of suing the union for the walkout, encouraged teachers not to take off April 2nd, but also indicated that if many wanted to walk out on April 2nd, they would not be punished.

“What I am asking teachers to do is return to work on Monday while sending a significant number of teachers to represent the district at the Capitol, thus allowing Edmond to hold school on April 2,” Towne said in a letter obtained by The Oklahoman. “By having school and sending representatives to the Capitol, we can ensure teachers’ voices are being heard, while at the same time meeting the needs of our students.

Some teachers’ union leaders want to accept the deal while others don’t. The state’s teachers’ union ranks are divided on whether to strike with some teachers planning to go out on strike in schools where many teachers intend to work.

Ed Allen, president of the 2,5000-member Oklahoma City AFT local says that he is advising his members to take the deal.

“Teachers’ voices were heard and reflected in this bill, which acknowledges that educators have been woefully underpaid and undervalued and that schools have been grossly underfunded,” said Allen.

Allen made clear that they were disappointed by the measure, which does not meet their original salary demands.

“While the Oklahoma City AFT accepts this package of pay raises, tax increases and education investment, we consider it a down payment,” said Allen. “Families need much more to feel assured that schools can recruit and keep quality educators and that kids get the resources they need to succeed. The fight goes on, especially to pass the November referendum to raise the gross production tax on oil and gas to 7 percent.”

However, questions remain about how long after that workers will remain on strike and for how long teachers will want to hold out for the $10,000 raise.

Allen said that he thinks people in the Oklahoma Education Association and on social media will lose public support if they engage in a never-ending strike, thus opening labor to lawsuits from superintendents in hundreds of school district across Oklahoma.

Unlike the successful West Virginia strike, which had only 55 school county school districts, many run by Democrats, there are more than 500 districts in Oklahoma, with Tea Party conservatives occupying many of these seats.

For now, the state superintendent said he is likely to respect the wishes of workers and not fire them if they walk out on April 2nd.

“Yes, Superintendent Bret Towne will plan to close schools Monday, April 2, if the majority of teachers indicate that they plan to walk out on Monday,” Susan Parks-Schlepp told The Oklahoman.

Allen said he’s not even clear if his own members will respect his call not to strike.

“I’ve been with the union for 26 years. The other side has the purse string, meaning they have the money but choose to spend it in different ways,” Allen told Payday Report. “At some point, you gotta take what you can get and then you move on. You just can’t keep saying ‘give it to me’ and they will eventually fold, it just doesn’t work that way. We had leverage.”

The Oklahoma Education Association is soldiering on saying that they are demanding a 10% increase and a higher tax increase on oil and natural gas revenue.

With low taxes, teachers’ salaries remain stubbornly low in Oklahoma 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.

“This package does not overcome the shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President  Alicia Priest said in a Facebook video. “We must show up on April 2. We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.”

“This social media crowd is adding a different element,” said Oklahoma City AFT President Ed Allen, who is advocating that workers return to work after getting this $6,000 raise approved.  “If you are out there and demanding more, you don’t know where the crowd is going to take you.”

However, questions remain about whether or not the teachers’ raises are truly funded.

After passing, the state legislature quickly repealed a $5 tax increase on hotel rooms because legislators were worried that it would hurt tourists and poor people in Oklahoma.

“It took us nearly 30 years in this building to raise taxes, and about 72 hours to turn around and cut them again,” said Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, while debating a motion after the tax repeal passage Thursday afternoon. “And we wonder why the public doesn’t trust us and we wonder why the public’s frustrated with us. Why they’re unsure if they want to send us back again for another term.”

However, state Republican leaders assured the press that the money would be made up some other way later on.

“Once we got that commitment to repeal then we were able to pass and fulfill our promises to deliver on a teacher pay raise,” Republican State Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City told Oklahoma’s News 4.

Treat said repealing the tax won’t impact teacher pay. “We just have to use some other funding streams to fill the $47 million dollars that was expected from the hotel/motel tax,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association said late Thursday night that rain or shine, the school buses won’t run and school will be closed on Monday, April 2nd throughout Oklahoma.

“Yesterday, the Legislature passed a historic education funding increase. Today, they started dismantling it by cutting millions out of the plan. Now they’re gone for the weekend. Oklahoma: we’ll see you at 9 a.m. April 2 at the Capitol. #OKwalk4kids,” wrote the Oklahoma Education Association Facebook account late Thursday night as Friday morning, and Payday, slowly approached.

Folks, we’re putting the Battle for Chattanooga Battle Flag in the suitcase and headed off for Tulsa to report for Payday and the Guardian. We got $325 of $1200 raised for Oklahoma Fund and Rick Claypool is helping me find an office in my hometown of Forest Hills, Pa.

Pitch into Payday in case we got pinch in and pitch some innings in a jam. 

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild and is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and has written for the New York Times. He also writes for The Guardian.

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