Oklahoma’s Revolution Didn’t End with Teacher Strikes—It’s Going Much Further

Lambert here: Nice to see liberal Democrats going all-in to support striking teachers in Red States. Oh, wait…

By Valerie Vande Panne, an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. Originally published at Alternet.

Oklahoma is in the midst of a revolution, with rolling teacher strikes statewide. Teachers have taken over the state capitol building, pressuring legislators to give them—and their fellow school employees—a raise. At the time of this writing, more state agencies, from Corrections to Mental Health to Transportation, are joining the teachers in their fight, and are getting louder about their budget shortfalls, too. While the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA—the primary teacher’s membership organization) recently announced the strike is over, the teachers continue to strike and walk out, and, according to a leader of the teacher’s strike, are seeking a new union that will actually represent their interests.

Meanwhile, legislators are seeking ways to punish the striking teachers, and have accused the teachers of bussing in protesters, and local police call the teachers “terrorists.”

In other words, the current state of unrest in Oklahoma is far from over, and state workers are far from being done protesting.

Adding fuel to the fire is the 2018 gubernatorial election. The state primaries, along with a popular medical marijuana ballot question, are June 26. (The state currently has some of the toughest marijuana laws in the nation, with 55 people still serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes, including marijuana offenses.)

There is a rallying cry rumbling in the state to replace every single elected official this year.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media continues to miss the mark on what’s happening on the ground locally. The state’s demographics betray the media’s portrayal of Oklahoma as Republican red and lily white: Most registered voters in Oklahoma are registered Democrat or are unaffiliated. Bernie won the primary easily, and got more votes in the primary than Trump did. A third of Oklahomans are African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and those of mixed race.

And still, the demographics of Oklahoma are changing: In Guymon, a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle, just north of the Texas border and hours from the nearest shopping mall, 37 languages are spoken in the public school system of just 3,000 students. Here, a teacher assistant’s full-time salary starts at just over $12,000 a year.

The news has been teeming with tales of teachers selling their plasma or working five jobs to make ends meet, yet the truth is it’s state workers who are impoverished, across the spectrum. While the poverty rate in the U.S. has fallen over the last 10 years, the poverty rate in Oklahoma has steadily risen.

And that’s only scratching the surface of the reasons for Oklahoma’s revolution. What’s boiling underneath is the knowledge that the state should be exceedingly wealthy: Fossil fuels are kings here, and oil, gas, and coal are sucked from the earth, from the rural countryside to the state capitol building in Oklahoma City. Decades of sweetheart deals have left the state paying those industries more than those industries pay the state.

Fossil fuel industries have been polluting with impunity for as long as they’ve been mining or pumping the resources, leaving entire towns, like Bokoshe and Dover, poisoned. Former state attorney general and current EPA director Scott Pruitt eliminated the environmental unit of the OK-AG’s office. Add in a slurry of corruption, cutbacks, and incompetence, and the state’s biggest environmental offenders are free to continue to poison Oklahoma’s citizens, air, land, and waterways.

The bottom line of what’s happening here is that people are sick and tired of politics as usual—the good ’ol boy system, they say, must end.

But many are skeptical of both parties. Even most of the Democrats in Oklahoma are considered “Dixiecrats,” and in the primaries, the Democratic Party favorite is former state attorney general Drew Edmondson, who oversaw the death penalty execution of dozens of Oklahomans.

Meanwhile, Connie Johnson, the Our Revolution candidate, is the African-American former state senator who started the state’s Our Revolution chapter. Johnson is in a strong position, but seems to currently be out-fundraised by Edmondson.

With replacing every elected official becoming a rallying cry, it’ll be interesting to see who gets voted in to state offices—and how many continue business as usual—and how the revolution impacts the rest of the country.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. The Rev Kev

    It seems that at this point average American workers, with teachers here at the forefront, must abandon the main stream Media, the establishment Republicans, the establishment Democrats and the establishment Union leadership and forge their own way ahead. What is that Arab proverb again? The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

    1. steven

      One big union — without co-opted, blood sucking parasites to run it! And while we are at it, let’s include all those “useless eaters” which Kissinger and other American plutocrats are so keen on destroying with their useless foreign wars.

  2. pretzelattack

    meanwhile, the kentucky governor blames striking teachers for any hypothetical sexual assaults of children “left at home” because of “striking teachers”. oh, and they will hypothetically try drugs for the first time, too, bacause they’re “home alone”. as far as i know, nobody has blamed russia for this yet, but give it time.

  3. Arizona Slim

    The revolution is growing like a dry brush fire. It’s spreading to Arizona, where we are #RedforEd.

    Nothing better than co-opting that “red state” trope!

  4. Pelham

    Since the article mentions the racial makeup of the state, it’s legitimate to wonder about the racial makeup of the strikers. Oklahoma is, apparently, still two-thirds white. Are whites generally opposed to the labor actions, or are they pitching in or even leading the way?

    And to re-emphasize Lambert’s point, where indeed is the Democratic Party? I’m hearing only crickets from that quarter, and we’re very far into this growing teacher unrest nationally.

    1. Synoia

      The small sample of teachers I met in OK were white.

      The crowds were diverse. As for busing in strikers, from where? OK city is a long way from the DFW area, St Louis or Kansas City

    2. Big River Bandido

      The Democrat establishment does not support teachers’ unions, or any other kind of union, for that matter. Nor do they support living wages for working people.

      They just want everyone to *think* they do.

  5. XXYY

    It’s weird that there seems to be a lot of red state unrest at this particular point in time.

    Random coincidence? People finally getting fed up? Have the right wing narratives of every man for himself, too much gov’mint and taxes, and not enough freedom lost their grip? Have the actions of the GOP in general and Trump in particular over the last year finally convinced everyone that the party is a vicious joke and not a source of salvation? Have the non-rightwingers in these states reached some kind of critical mass? Has the loss of control of the information system made it impossible for elites to marginalize strikes and demonize strikers like they could in the old days? Has popular contempt for elites and the leadership classes reached some kind of boiling point?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    1. Big River Bandido

      A recent spate of articles on the teachers’ strikes, the Janus case, and right-to-work laws indicates that in jurisdictions with few protections for labor, labor has less to lose. Further, in such places, the union “leadership” which has for years cozied up to politicians (see the Iron Law of Institutions) has grown powerless over its own rank and file. The strike in West Virginia was a “wildcat” strike, and from the looks of it, so is the strike in Oklahoma. The rank and file basically took over advocating for their own interests, and when “leadership” in WV made an agreement with the legislature that was less than what the strikers had demanded, the rank and file defied its own union “leaders”.

      All this, in my view, is very healthy.

      1. Richard

        The fact that these actions are proceeding without union oversight and approval is a huge deal and super positive, and I say this as a proud teachers’ union member (Seattle Education Association). Our own union local is more responsive and democratic than many across the country, but I’ve been talking with fellow teachers lately about how it could be different. I’ve been inspired by WV teachers demonstrating the public part of their jobs, helping to make sure kids are fed during the strike, and wondering if our union could reinvent itself. Rather than making our union so much about negotiating and protecting a contract drawn between the district and the teachers, that we begin to present it as the education workers negotiating for the entire community, for EVERYONE, because it’s public you see. It would involve teachers re-envisioning what a union (up here in seattle) is about. We work for The People; we have a duty to them that preceeds and stands above anything we owe to the state.
        They will never expect it, or family blogging stop it.
        Thanks for showing us this, Lambert! Oklahoma is my new hero. And Kentucky, and WV, and Arizona…

      2. Elizabeth Burton

        Nor is this the first time this has happened, or even the second. Rank-and-file union members are clearly fed up with being sold out by their “leaders” and so are refusing to accept less than what they need. And I think “need” is the correct word because in ever case strikers are fighting for the right to a living wage and decent benefits they aren’t billed for.

        As I’ve noted previously, the World Socialist Web Site is an excellent source of information on this subject. They make no bones about their positions on the issues they cover, but then, they don’t purport to be a “news source” of the traditional kind, either, from what I can tell. So, with the caveat you’ll get leftist rhetoric with your information, I encourage anyone wanting to know what’s really happening on the labor front to consider swinging by there now and again.

      3. The Rev Kev

        “That whenever any Form of (Union) becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new (Union), laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that (Union)s long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such (Union), and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

      4. cgeye

        If I were a suspicious person, it’s this wildcat organization via social media, not Russian infiltration, is prompting calls to regulate the Internet.

    2. Ed Miller

      When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. We are getting closer very quickly, speaking historically, and if we step over the edge it’s not going to be good for anyone.

      Written in 2014 by a trader, who by definition must be considered close to the elites in wealth. The article is very long but well worth pondering for its depth. “The Rule of Law is Vastly Under-Priced” [My bolded text]

      “It is worth noting that the beneficiaries of the modern gilded age are not as mean-spirited as say, for example, the Russian landowning aristocracy was to their peasants. Few knowing observers shed a tear for what befell them. Nor is the plight of today’s disadvantaged as dire as it was historically. Admittedly, this is not setting the bar very high, and it ignores the profound change in the direction of outcomes over the past three decades. Most alarmingly, in the big picture, it appears as if modern-day super-beneficiaries have privatized the benefits of the rule of law, while more or less continuously diminishing their [mostly fiscal] responsibilities to finance it. THAT, in itself, says volumes about how much they collectively value the entente, or how ignorant they are in respect to its very existence.

      That is a great shame. Not because I worry for the future welfare of those deriving the greatest benefit, but because of the coarseness, and alienation it creates amongst the great majority of people, and the corrosion of that singularly-most-valued man-made creation, The Rule of Law.


    3. Adam Eran

      These reliably “red” states have a history of differing politics than we might usually associate with them. During the late 19th & early 20th century, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Confederate South were hotbeds of populist uprisings from the Farmers’ Alliance and the Peoples’ Party. They elected state and federal congressmen, and senators too. (See The Populist Moment for footnotes)

      I’ve even read that the highest concentration of Socialists in the nation was in Oklahoma … a while ago, but still, those allegiances aren’t cast in stone.

      If you really want to get the scoop about Oklahoma, I recommend OKPolicy.org, a blog that really keeps track.

  6. Denis Drew

    “The bottom line of what’s happening here is that people are sick and tired of politics as usual—the good ’ol boy system, they say, must end. “

    The one-and-only way to end it:

    To raise the majority of our workforce from “price takers” to “price negotiators” our coming blue wave Congress simply needs to mandate union certification and re-certification elections at every private workplace; every one, three or five years, plurality rules on the latter.

  7. political economist

    Sometimes even a tightly closed Overton Window doesn’t stop the salutary breeze from entering. Teachers have been continually demonized and not just by Obama and the super-wealthy but also by their loyal servants in the media. However, people know their own teachers and trust in the prevaricators of news is at an all time low. In OK the lines are clearly drawn: people versus money (a lot of money).
    This is getting very interesting. May the walls of ignorance comes tumbling down and crush the establishment lies.

  8. Indrid Cold

    Isn’t “terrorist” just an update of the charge of “anarchist” that was attached to anyone in the early 20th century fighting for something more than bare subsistence.

  9. Ford Prefect

    Now that the public seems to expect teachers to put their bodies in the way of bullets heading towards their students, maybe they can be paid at a rate commensurate with first responders (the same people calling teachers “terrorists”).

    1. Lord Koos

      I’m not sure who’s floating these ideas of teachers as armed bodyguards, but I don’t think it’s the general public. It’s a meme started by people with an agenda, I’m certain.

      1. Richard

        I’m pretty sure it was Trump, right? And not a meme, but what passes for an actual policy suggestion from him.
        Life is so sad and strange now. Not at all like the strange punk rock future I was hoping for as a kid in the 1970’s! Or maybe punk rock is just sadder than I thought it was.

  10. Annotherone

    While it’s a relief to see news items about Oklahoma that are not a source of absolute embarrassment, I think the author of the featured article sounds a wee bit over-optimistic in the main. Maybe there are rallying cries, but none has reached our neck of the woods yet, our local newspapers haven’t heard them. Perhaps we don’t move in the right circles.

    I’m one of this group:
    “But many are skeptical of both parties. Even most of the Democrats in Oklahoma are considered “Dixiecrats…” I consider them Conservatives! There is no real left here, in spite of Bernie having won the 2016 primary – that was probably because Clinton is so strongly disliked. There’s only far right and right. There are no voices capable of issuing rallying cries, at least none that could reach the volume needed. I wish it were different – I hope that I’m wrong!

    1. Janie

      I lived in Oklahoma until I was in my thirties. I have friends and relatives there and talk to tbem regularly. They are unanimous in supporting Trump and in voting Republican. They voted for Romney because a Mormon was not as bad as a Muslim. These people are doctors, lawyers, nurses, bankers, CPAs et cetera

    2. YankeeFrank

      If you read the OP, it states clearly that Bernie won the OK primary and received more votes than Trump. Anecdotes are useful but…

  11. Altandmain

    Basically the corporations and rich looted the state, while the common citizens got crumbs.

    Eventually this was going to catch up to them.

    It reminds me of the situation in Canada. Alberta to its credit has raised taxes and the corporate media needless to say, is crying out about it. What should happen is that a state owned corporation should take over the oil and use it for the people. Norway is doing a far better job, although a case could be made (and Michael Hudson has done so) that the money should be invested in R&D, infrastructure, and investments likely to pay off for the common people.

  12. Elizabeth Burton

    Honestly, this whole “red state/blue state” nonsense continues to strike me as nothing but a characteristic of the way in which the media have trained everyone to think of political contests like team sports. It’s pathetically generic as a description but extremely useful if the goal is to discourage anyone fed up with the status quo from undertaking to change it.

    Yes, Massachusetts is overrun with Red Sox fans, but that doesn’t stop another team from beating them if they put better players on the field. Yet that’s what the whole “X is a hardcore red state, so trying to fix things there is a lost cause” theme says to me—that just because there are a lot of hardcore Republicans in a state doesn’t mean their team is invulnerable.

    So, just because the PTBs think they have Oklahoma sewed up in that Red State bag doesn’t mean there’s no chance of pulling out the seams. The goal should be not to persuade people to vote for a candidate not of their regular party but to retrain them to think in terms of individual candidates. Some diehards never will, but I know too many people who aren’t as party-cult indoctrinated as the people manipulating them would like to believe.

    1. Richard

      The writer Walter Karp had a great antidote for Blue State/Red State futilism, decades before the terms were even invented. He noticed some obvious things, like each party had bastions in which the other party barely put up a pretense of running against them, and wrote a lot about the specific methods they had for colluding. But one idea of his has always stuck with me: that if we think of the two parties as teams, both trying their very hardest to put together a winning message, then we must wonder: why they have they given up in these districts? Are voters there perfectly satisfied with their government? Obviously not.
      Nothing scares the Dem leadership more than winning in so called “Red America”. If one was looking for the original source of all the Red/Blue who ha, the first place to check would be in dem thinktank/media circles.

      1. JBird

        This so described binary Left/Liberal/neoliberal/Democratic and Right/Conservative/Libertarian/Republican split serves only the described, not the described. If nothing else, the current approved definitions of left/liberal/moderate/conservative/right does match what I grew up with. The terms have been twisted and redefined to mean whatever serves the powerful and not to accurately, or at least honestly attempt to, describe the situation.

        Whatever your beliefs are, and wherever you generally are on the left/right spectrum, it likely doesn’t match the top 10-20% of the population; even if your views match, if you don’t have their income, not only don’t your views likely not match, your economic interests almost certainly don’t; the whole system is so dysfunctional and corrupt, that whatever your views, interests, and even needs are merely there to be manipulated to serve the top, not 1%, but the 0.01% or more likely 0.001, using the whole American political, economic, and legal regime as the hands.

        And yes, much of the blue/red division is artificial. It’s certainly very over broad, and even if you actually fit into them, the systemic greed, corruption, and incompetence probably doesn’t. It is interesting to see people actually agree on that even when they are busy fighting each other. That gives me some hope.

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