Teacher Unrest Spreads to Oklahoma

Originally published in The Intercept on March 6, 2018.

Last summer Teresa Dank, a third-grade teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, gained national attention after she began panhandling to raise money for her classroom. Like many other teachers in a state with some of the lowest education spending in the country, Dank was at her wit’s end. Her frustration came to a head two weeks ago, following yet another failed legislative attempt to increase teacher pay. And so she started an online petition, asking for signatures from those who would support a walkout by teachers. Soon another Oklahoma teacher named Alberto Morejon launched a Facebook group to mobilize fellow educators for a walkout, quickly drawing tens of thousands of members.

The increasing momentum for a strike in Oklahoma comes as a strike by West Virginia teachers entered its ninth consecutive school day on Tuesday. State lawmakers, hoping to bring the strike to an end, reached a deal on Tuesday morning to raise all state employee salaries by 5 percent. Oklahoma’s 42,000 teachers make even less than their West Virginian counterparts; in 2016, the average Oklahoma teacher earned $45,276, a salary lower than that of teachers in every state except Mississippi. With no pay increases for Sooner State teachers in a decade, educators have been leaving for greener pastures, moving to neighboring states like Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas. Last May, Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, announced that he would be moving to Texas for more financial stability.

As it so often goes, when times are tough for teachers, times are also tough for students. Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma stands at $8,075, among the lowest in the country and lower than all of Oklahoma’s neighboring states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts Oklahoma’s cuts to general education funding since the recession as the highest in the nation, with 28 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding cut over the last decade. Things have gotten so bad that nearly 100 school districts across the state hold classes just four days a week to save money.

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Strikes by Oklahoma school employees are technically illegal, but educators have found a legal work-around. If school districts shut down, then that’s a work stoppage that doesn’t involve teachers walking off the job. Many superintendents across the state have already come out in support of closing down schools if the teachers decide to move forward with their strike.

Teachers point to a four-day strike from nearly three decades ago, when more than half of Oklahoma educators stayed home from school. This successful 1990 protest prompted the legislature to raise teacher pay, institute class-size limits, and expand kindergarten offerings.

“Nothing else has worked over the last two to three years, so at this point teachers, parents, and community members are desperate for a solution,” said Amber England, a longtime Oklahoma education advocate. “This is what they’re thinking is the last resort. They don’t want to do it, but they really don’t feel like they have any other option.”

Why Aren’t Teachers Getting a Raise?

Educators were optimistic that things were going to change in 2016. The Republican-controlled legislature promised it’d pass a teacher pay increase, but in the end they failed to get anything done. Later that same year, a high-profile ballot initiative went before voters to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent, to give all teachers a $5,000 pay increase.

But that measure also ended up failing miserably, garnering just over 40 percent of the vote. Republicans in the state opposed taxes going up, and many Democrats also opposed the measure because a sales tax would have hit the poor the hardest.

In 2017, the legislature promised yet again to pass a teacher pay raise, adjourning in the end with nothing to show for it. A measure to raise teacher and state employee salaries funded by a tax on cigarettes, motor vehicle fuel, and beer failed 54-44 in October.

“Time after time, there’s just been terrible cuts, broken promises, and no legislative action or leadership,” England told The Intercept.

Just like in Kansas, Oklahoma’s leaders have been slashing taxes, finding that this then leaves them with less money to fund basic government services.

Aside from reducing income taxes for its wealthiest citizens in 2013, Oklahoma legislators voted in 2014 to extend major oil industry tax cuts that were set to expire in 2015. The drilling tax, known as the “gross production tax,” or GPT, had been set at 7 percent in the 1970s, but in the early 1990s, when horizontal drilling first came on the scene, the then-Democratic controlled legislature reduced it down to 1 percent, to help encourage experimentation with the new technology.

Mickey Thompson, who worked as the president of Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association between 1991 and 2005, told The Intercept that the GPT reduction was important back then because horizontal drilling was “really new, untested, unproven, and expensive.” Thompson helped push for the tax reduction in the ’90s, but today has become one of the state’s most vocal advocates for raising it back up to 7 percent, because, he said, by now everyone knows that horizontal drilling easily pays for itself. “These cuts were never supposed to be permanent,” Thompson said.

The GPT was supposed to return back to 7 percent in 2015, but Republicans instead made the tax cuts permanent at 2 percent, a notably lower rate than other oil-producing states.

The Step Up Plan

Following all the legislative failures and the ballot measure failure, a group of influential business leaders in Oklahoma got together in December to formulate a last-ditch effort to push something through. The elite bipartisan coalition, dubbed Step Up Oklahoma, unveiled their proposals in January, advocating modest revenue hikes on GPT, motor fuel, cigarettes, and eliminating a few income tax deductions. Hailed as a grand compromise, the Step Up plan would have generated enough revenue to give all teachers a $5,000 pay raise. All five of Oklahoma’s former living governors endorsed the plan, as did the state’s teachers union 

But when legislators voted on the package in mid-February, it too failed, with 17 Democrats and 18 Republicans voting against the measure. Some Republicans argued this was Oklahoma’s last real shot at reaching a compromise this year, but other Democrats said they don’t buy that this is the best deal they could reach.

Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, was among those who voted against the Step Up plan.

“There was a hell of a lot of pressure on us to pass it, and I’ve gotten a lot of shit for voting no, but this package was pretty flawed from the start,” he told The Intercept. Bennett noted that aside from teacher pay increases, the Step Up deal contained a number of regressive taxes and pushed only for doubling the GPT up to 4 percent.

In October, a new nonprofit, Restore Oklahoma Now, formed to push for a 2018 ballot measure that would hike the GPT back up to 7 percent and direct the majority of new revenue to schools and teachers. That effort is being led by Thompson, the former OIPA president.

“We felt we needed to get GPT to at least 5 percent,” Bennett explained. “We were being dictated to by this private business owner group, and as long as that 7 percent ballot initiative is looming, we think we will have more opportunities to push for alternatives.”

England, who had been helping the Oklahoma Education Association mobilize support for the Step Up plan, emphasized that it’s been increasingly difficult to reach any sort of bipartisan agreement. “Compromise is not the politically correct position anymore,” she told The Intercept.

Strike As a Last Resort

For many teachers, the legislature’s failure to pass the Step Up plan was the last straw. Dank launched her petition a week after the failed vote, capitalizing on the frustration of thousands of teachers whose classrooms have been underfunded for far too long.

Different dates are floating around for a potential strike. One scenario is to strike on April 2, the same time that students are scheduled to take their mandatory standardized tests. Failing to take those tests could mean Oklahoma sacrifices millions of dollars in federal funds. Organizers are calling this the “nuclear option.” Another possibility is to shut down schools the week following spring break, which would be the week before standardized testing. The Oklahoma Education Association plans to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon to unveil a “detailed revenue package and a statewide closure strategy.” NewsOK, a local news outlet, reported that nearly 80 percent of respondents to an online survey administered by the Oklahoma Educators Association voiced support for school closures to force lawmakers to increase educational investments.

Thompson, the leader behind the GPT ballot initiative, worries a teacher walkout will damage public support for educators in the state. “I think a majority of teachers understand what we’re trying to do [with our initiative], but their morale is very low, and they are beyond frustrated,” he said. He acknowledges, though, that his concerns “are falling on deaf ears” and that “teachers are ready to try anything.”

For his part, Thompson thinks the ballot initiative he’s leading stands a better shot at passage than the failed 2016 penny tax. “Teachers have gone two more years without a pay raise, and the public has been talking about it for all this time now,” he said. “There is just more public support for a teacher raise than two years ago.”

Thompson also thinks the fact that his proposed ballot initiative would raise revenue without raising taxes on everyone else will help secure its passage. “Conservatives don’t want to raise state sales tax, liberals don’t want a regressive tax, but our deal is not a sales tax — it’s a tax on the oil and gas industry, trying to take away their sweetheart deal that was passed 20 years ago,” he said.

Their ballot initiative isn’t a done deal yet, though; they haven’t even begun collecting the necessary 123,000 signatures. Last week, they defended their ballot initiative at Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, and now they’re waiting for the court’s approval to move forward.

“The court can take as long as they please to give us a decision on whether we’re valid or whether we’re kicked to the curb,” Thompson explained. “We’re not officially a ballot initiative until we get their approval, but we’re feeling confident.”

Democrats remain convinced that all the mounting pressure will create more opportunities for lawmakers to push forward alternative revenue packages this legislative season. Bennett said the threat of a 7 percent GPT ballot initiative, a statewide teacher walkout, and a potential blue wave for Democrats across the country in November, will help keep pressure up in the legislature.

“The Step Up coalition made people feel like their deal was the last shot, but it’s not,” he said. “What they did do was engage a lot of people, and now a lot more are really frustrated and are paying attention.”


Steve Bannon Tried to Recruit Teachers Union to Trump’s Agenda While in White House

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on November 1, 2017.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met one-on-one with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back in March, following the announcement of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and plan to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Intercept learned of the meeting, which has not been previously reported, independent of Weingarten or Bannon. It was instigated through a mutual friend and appeared to be part of Bannon’s effort to realign the parties, according to Weingarten.

“Look, I will meet with virtually anyone to make our case, and particularly in that moment, I was very, very concerned about the budget that would decimate public education,” Weingarten said. “I wanted it to be a real meeting, I didn’t want it to be a photo-op, so I insisted that the meeting didn’t happen at the White House.”

Weingarten didn’t take notes at the meeting, which was held at a Washington restaurant, but told The Intercept she and Bannon talked about “education, infrastructure, immigrants, bigotry and hate, budget cuts … [and] about a lot of different things.”

She came away a bit shook. “I came out of that conversation saying that this was a formidable adversary,” she said.

He was looking, Weingarten said, for some common ground that could assist him in realigning the two parties, his long-term goal in politics.“I think he sees the world as working people versus elites. And on some level, he’s thought about educators as working-class folks. But what he doesn’t do is think about the other side of educators, as people who fiercely believe in equality and inclusion. It isn’t an either/or philosophy. The [Martin Luther] King philosophy of jobs and justice is not the Bannon philosophy, let’s put it that way,” she said. “He’s trying to figure out where the friction is, and how to change the alignment. I think that’s really what he was trying to do.”

Hearing Bannon attack elites, including the types of hedge fund Democrats who fund the charter school movement, in the same way she would, was surreal. “He hates crony capitalism,” Weingarten said. “The same kinds of things [we say], you could hear out of his mouth, and that’s why it’s so — you sit there in a surreal way, saying, ‘How can you sit right next to all these elites?’”

Since the election, Weingarten has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders within Democratic circles to resist Trump’s agenda – regularly speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, deportation threats, budget cuts, and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. She was one of the first Hillary Clinton allies to endorse the Bernie Sanders-backed Keith Ellison in his race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Less than two weeks after the election, Weingarten and Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center sent an open letter to the president-elect, signed by 100 other organizations, calling on him to forcefully denounce hate. “While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your ‘60 Minutes’ interview, the appointment of ‘alt-right’ hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist — which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups — sends the exact opposite message,” they wrote.

Bannon’s embrace of the “alt-right” movement has at once propelled his rise and put a ceiling on it. It took him from obscurity to the White House and now to the head of a rebel conservative movement. But his ability to realign the parties is hampered by those more noxious elements of his coalition. It was reportedly Bannon, for instance, who urged Trump to not condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, even after one of them allegedly killed a counterprotester with his car. That makes Bannon’s hunt for allies among labor unions and within the black and brown working class that much harder.

“This is one smart guy,” Weingarten said, “but I was pretty clear with him about my criticism of the white nationalism philosophy.” For Weingarten, who is Jewish and a lesbian, Bannon’s “alt-right” politics are more than an abstract threat. Indeed, in a typical White House, a labor leader would not ask to have a meeting outside the White House and then say nothing about it for six months.

In August, just days before he was fired (or resigned) from Trump’s administration, Bannon called Robert Kuttner, co-editor of liberal magazine American Prospect, to talk about a range of issues, including trade and identity politics. Kuttner published a summary of their conversation, remarking that he left “with a sense both of [Bannon’s] savvy and his recklessness.”

Weingarten came away with the same impression: “Let me say it this way: Kuttner’s download about their meeting was not surprising to me in the least.”

At the time of the meeting, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the federal education budget by 13.5 percent, a figure that would amount to more than $9 billion in cuts. The White House also proposedcutting Medicaid by $800 billion, threatening school districts with fundingthey use to provide health and special education services.

“I saw that meeting as my doing my job of trying to find a way to convey, in any way I could, that the public and even his voters had fierce opposition to the education cuts,” she said, adding that she told Bannon their polling showed half of Trump’s voters opposed his cuts.

Bannon, meanwhile, was working hard to build a coalition to push through an infrastructure deal, as well as drive a wedge through organized labor’s longstanding support for the Democratic Party. In January, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump invited five union leaders to the White House to discuss trade and infrastructure spending. Earlier that same day, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in an executive order that drew praise from the union leaders he was hosting. Both Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who were not at the meeting, also released statements applauding Trump’s move.

The AFT is a key affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country, and the White House may have recognized that Weingarten could present problems for their economic agenda. On March 13, three days before the administration’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Axios published a piece describing how the teachers union leader could complicate Trump’s infrastructure plans, because the AFT has sizable pension investments wrapped up in private equity, and the White House was hoping to leverage private equity to help fund the infrastructure package. “Weingarten doesn’t control the pension money but she’s got a substantial bully pulpit,” the Axios article said, adding that she “also holds a lot of political sway at the local and state levels, which matters because more infrastructure spending is currently financed via the municipal bond market.”

The AFT was the first labor union to endorse Clinton in the 2016 election, months earlier than other unions, including the National Education Association. The AFT represents 1.7 million teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and health care workers, among others.

Weingarten said she ultimately viewed the encounter as an opportunity to make her case for public education. “If you are the president of the union and you’re fighting fiercely to get budget restorations and to not have a dismantlement of public education or of higher education and the administration asks to – or it’s made clear to you that they want to meet – you meet,” she said. “You don’t not meet. You meet.”

In addition to the open letter sent to the Trump in November 2016, Weingarten sent another letter to the White House — which has not been previously reported — this past July. In it, she emphatically lays out the AFT’s concerns about how the president’s budget plans would impact schools, writing that she hopes Trump “can find time to discuss these issues” with her, as well as ways to strengthen public education.

Weingarten told The Intercept this meeting with Trump has not happened. Bannon declined to comment on the meeting.

Why D.C.’s First Charter Union Election Was Called Off

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3, 2017.

In February, I reported on the first public union campaign at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Teachers at Paul Public Charter School wanted to form their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Seventy-one percent of Paul’s staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked their administrators on February 22 to voluntarily recognize their union.

When the administration refused to do so, Paul teachers filed for an NLRB election—scheduled for Thursday, March 30. (In a statement, the charter’s management said, “We do not believe that a union is necessary at Paul PCS.”) But the day before the scheduled vote, a surprising thing happened. The AFT, not the charter school teachers, called it off.

David Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul told WAMU that their teacher organizing committee felt they had enough votes to win, and wanted to go ahead with their election, but “we did not have enough people who were willing to be public with their support to convince AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

While 58 of Paul’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signed the initial union petition given to administrators in February, in the days leading up to the NLRB election just 33 people were willing to publicly commit to voting “yes” on March 30. Teachers on the organizing committee said that despite this, they were confident, based on private conversations with their colleagues, that they would still have a majority in support of the union when taken to a secret vote.

Experts who’ve studied NLRB elections have no such confidence, however. “If the teachers went forward, they would lose, absolutely,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. “If workers will not publicly say that they will vote for the union, that means they are voting no. That has been proven a hundred times over.”

If the staff’s support for the union has dwindled, that looks to be chiefly the result of management’s opposition. Since the time teachers went public with their union campaign, Paul’s administration engaged in what some teachers described as an aggressive, scorched-earth effort to dissuade teachers from voting to unionize.

The charter school maintains that it never pressured staff on how to vote, and that it “support[s] the right of all employees to participate in such [union] activity.”

But on March 15, Emily Farley, the high school dean of academics; Danielle Singh, the middle school principal; and Rosemarie Ragin, the director of student services, sent Paul staff the following letter:

Make no mistake, this election will have a lasting impact on you, your job, and the entire Paul community.

We are deeply concerned about what this election means to Paul’s staff and our Scholars. We do not believe that this union would be good for you or for our school, and believe the entire community—including teachers and staff—will be better served by continuing a collaborative, cooperative dialogue and problem solving process that does not include a third-party union. One of the advantages that draws both teachers and students to Paul is our ability to work directly and efficiently with our staff on a range of things that matter to all of us. This allows us to meet the needs of our students and families while engaging directly with teachers and staff to create the work environment you need to be successful. We readily agree that this is not always been a perfect process and that it can always be improved, but by voting for AFT in the election, you may be voting away your legal rights to deal directly with Paul and your supervisors on issues that will determine your pay, benefits and working conditions.

We also believe that our future success and security hinges on our ability to provide a high quality education to our Paul Scholars. This is why their families entrusted them to us. We do not believe that the involvement of AFT will help any of us educate our students.

This issue is about our commitment to each other. You will be asked to decide whether you want to continue to have a cooperative working relationship with the Paul administration, or whether you want an outside third party, AFT, to speak for you. Remember, AFT can only promise to do things; we have proven that the Paul community can deliver when we work together. Our proud history demonstrates that we do not need outsiders trying to get us to work against each other.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to provide you with the facts about AFT and the potential impact of unionization at our school. We believe that once you get all the facts you will see that unionization is not right for Paul staff or students, and you will vote “NO.”

And in an email sent to staff on March 20, Paul administrators told staff to “PROTECT YOUR PAYCHECK. VOTE NO ON MARCH 30TH.”


Moreover, on March 27, three days before the vote, Tammy Wythe, the school’s director of talent, sent a letter to Paul staff saying the school would hold off on issuing employment contract information for the 2017–2018 school year until after the NLRB vote. The school had previously told staff that they would receive this information by the end of March—acknowledging that “this information allows all of us—teachers, staff, and school leaders to plan for the next year.” The AFT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint in response, saying administrators crossed a line by withholding information about whether teachers would continue to have their jobs until after the vote. (Following the election’s cancellation, the union withdrew its ULP.)

Despite all of this, the teachers still wanted to move forward with their vote. An AFT spokesperson told POLITICO that Paul’s administrators “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

From the union’s perspective, the fact that more teachers no longer wanted to publicly declare that they would vote for a union meant that management’s aggressive tactics were working, and that they had lost a significant amount of support.

By cancelling the NLRB election, teachers are able to schedule a new one in six months. If they had held the election and lost, then staff would have to wait one year before filing again. More importantly, from the union’s perspective, if the teachers lose their union election, then management might take that as a mandate to do whatever they want over the next school year. But by canceling it, management will have to remember that a failure—union advocates would say, a continued failure—to satisfy teachers’ conditions could mean that the staff could file again quickly for a vote. In other words, the union says it can help keep the boss on their best behavior.

Bronfenbrenner says that based on her 25 years of labor research, the AFT was right to conclude that the vote would fail given the drop in public commitments to vote in favor. “The initial petition is not a measure of ‘yes’ votes—it’s a benchmark as to whether you should go forward to the next step,” she says. “And if you vote and lose, it’s much harder to win than if you withdraw and try again. If you vote and lose, then the employer can go after the pro-union teachers and reward the anti-union ones. If they withdraw, then the campaign can continue.”

Despite not getting to vote for a union, it appears the staff’s organizing effort already helped increase teacher voice somewhat within Paul Public Charter. Since the teachers went public with their campaign, Paul’s administration added teachers to both the charter’s CEO hiring committee and the high school’s principal hiring committee.

The optics of canceling a vote that teachers wanted to hold doesn’t look great for the AFT, given that union officials regularly make a point to say that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to be represented by a union. Bronfenbrenner stresses, however, that a unionization campaign isn’t about voting, per se. “It’s about winning. And if they vote, they will lose—they will get slaughtered,” she says. “It’s not democracy to let them vote. What would be democratic is to let them build their union.”

One Paul teacher, who didn’t want to be specifically mentioned in this article, said the campaign’s stalwarts are likely to continue organizing with their colleagues, but that it’s unclear what shape those efforts will take, or if they’d consider working with the AFT in the future.