Don’t Believe Right-Wing Rhetoric About “Teachers Unions” in Oklahoma

The ads for Janet Barresi in the Oklahoma City TV market are almost surreal. Are they even talking about Oklahoma? Yes, they are. But I don’t recognize what they are describing.

Now to get the effect, use that deep, male, monster-truck-tractor-pull scary voice to say the words “teachers unionzzzzzzzzzz“. What? You mean there are for-real teachers unions in Oklahoma?

Barresi’s ads are intended to tar her Republican opponent, Joy Hofmeister, by saying that she is in cahoots with those “teachers unions”. In the intellectually incestuous circles of the Right Wing in Oklahoma, that’s a horrible thing!

Union Thugs???
Union Thugs???
Uh, We Are Talking About the OEA, Right?

Since there is only one sizable teachers organization in Oklahoma, I guess they are referring to the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) which is a part of the National Education Association (NEA).

The Oklahoma Education Association, which still represents many public school teachers has always been a moderate voice for teachers.

I was active in my local and on the state level. I knew most of the leaders at the time. I was about the most unionist of anyMe and Kevin at OEA conventionone who I knew in the OEA including their own staff! I can’t keep from laughing at the campaign spots that I am seeing now about “teachers unions” as though they are talking about the Teamsters in the 1930s fist-fighting company security goons in the streets.

I Don’t Get It

Having seen the insides of local, Oklahoma, and even national versions of what the Right Wing in Oklahoma calls “teachers unions”, I don’t get it. Considering the history of labor unions in the U.S., only one very small organization of teachers in Oklahoma could be fashioned as a labor union. And it’s not the OEA.

If there ever was a true labor-union-style teacher’s union in Oklahoma it was the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Oklahoma City local that won a much-needed strike against Oklahoma City Public Schools in the early 1970s.

The Oklahoma Education Association became more union-styled in those years after the OKCPS strike because of the competition with AFT, and because of a strong negative reaction among administrators after they saw that strike succeed. Administrators, who had been in visible leadership in the OEA for years, pulled out in large enough numbers to leave the OEA appearing to be more like a teachers union.

For years afterward, OkSDE honchos had an almost ideal situation: administrators and teachers divided. With those two groups fighting each other, they weren’t fighting the Oklahoma Supt. of Schools, or the State Board, or their buddies in the legislature.

Nationally, there came a time when the NEA seriously entertained merging with the AFT, but voted not to.  That is no small thing when considering the foreboding campaign talk about “teachers unions”.

Teachers Are Generally Conservative

Since that strike in 1972, AFT affiliates in Oklahoma really have not made much more headway among teachers in the state because teachers, and especially Oklahoma teachers, are pretty conservative. Why?

Teaching is, at its base, a conservative act of passing on accepted wisdom from earlier generations to the current one. “Outside the box thinking” in the teaching profession is limited to the ways in which accepted wisdom is taught. Teachers seldom question the accepted wisdom itself.

In Oklahoma, the bulk of teachers are still located in small towns where they are among the best educated group in the town. They are closely connected to everyone through their children, but have more in common with the town lawyers and doctors. That’s hardly a formula for unionization. Oklahoma teachers just don’t take to much union talk at all.

Added to that, unions just have not been a part of Oklahoma culture since the 1930s, even though we have had some very strong and necessary unions in the recent past. On the whole, they were trade unions of highly trained middle class workers who did not represent a particular philosophy or ideology like the “Wobblies” or similar unions.

Teachers Act for the Sake of Children

2014-03-31 11.45.06When teachers as a group perceive that state policies and laws are harming our students, then we become activists. And that’s what the “reformers” really fear about teachers.

When teachers and administrators joined together in the large rally this winter, people really started to pay attention. It seems that with a new generation of administrators, this could be the time for a much needed reset in political relations between teachers and administrators.

We are smart, educated, solid citizens who stand up for our children even when it doesn’t fit the ideology of the wealthiest people in the state, who, by the way, want their children to have the very best educations. They just don’t think that our children should.

For the sake of an ideology, “education reformers” place unfounded concepts ahead of students’ needs. Under that banner, Janet Barresi has ignored Oklahoma’s children and shown contempt for those who teach them. That is why teachers have come alive to act politically, with our administrators, when we usually are reluctant to.

I’m glad that we are waking up to the threats that are confronting our children. It’s time to move beyond our usual passivity and conservative natures.

It’s time to vote.

It’s time to tell others why.

Make June 24th the beginning, not the end of our efforts.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Right-Wing Rhetoric About “Teachers Unions” in Oklahoma”

  1. I had no idea that there was a teachers’ strike in Oklahoma! Thank you for sharing; I’m going to have to read up on that situation. In the meantime, I am sharing your article with my colleagues.

    1. I used to know a teacher who was in her first year of teaching when she decided to join that strike against the advice of her older family members who were teachers. She did well as a teacher, and later was a staffer for that local.

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