Oklahoma Teacher Walkout: What We Can Do Different Next Time

Most of Oklahoma’s public schools were closed for nine days, April 2nd–12th, 2018, as a show of strength and commitment in what came to be known as the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout.  It was two weeks of rallying, marching, lobbying, organizing, singing, chanting, and picketing.  Each of these forms of civic engagement is now an essential part of an emerging political will among Oklahoma teachers that has not waned since returning to the classroom.  The walkout was demanded by teachers, made possible by cooperative superintendents and local school boards, funded and orchestrated by the Oklahoma Education Association, and overwhelmingly supported by the public.  Yet, it was largely ignored by the Republican controlled legislature, and even derided by Republican Governor, Mary Fallin. In the aftermath of the walkout, however, horizontal hostility is threatening the Oklahoma “education spring” from the inside.[1]

The term “horizontal hostility” has been used by feminists since the 1970’s to describe the practice of enforcing the dominant system of oppression from within the women’s movement.  Expanding the concept to other movements, horizontal hostility is when infighting occurs and threatens progress toward the common goal of positive social change.  When movements stall, it is easy to forget who the real enemy is.  When the walkout stalled late into the second week, leadership at the Oklahoma Education Association decided it was time to shift focus, and President Alicia Priest announced an end to the walkout—but also a continuation of the movement. Many of the teachers whose groundswell demand was the impetus for the walkout felt betrayed by this move and immediately began speaking out on social media.  At this moment of the movement, it is not advantageous for the grassroots fervor of influential Facebook groups to be at odds with the established institutional power of the OEA.

John Thompson has “Five takeaways from the Oklahoma teacher walkout” that are well worth the read.[2] In that vein, I present a few ideas for what the Oklahoma public education community can do differently the next time we have a walkout.

Over the course of the nine-day walkout, I was privileged to experience a variety of low risk opportunities in nonviolent direct action.  The various marches that originated in places like Moore, Del City, and Edmond were perfect examples of what is called “escalation.”  When repeated tactics fail to produce the desired social change; the movement does not end, the movement does not continue uninterrupted, the movement escalates.  The various marches were a demonstration of the lengths that Oklahoma teachers are willing to go for their students’ education.  Marching from Moore to the Capitol was an escalated form of marching around the Capitol.  Marching from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, “March for Education,” was the highest level of escalation that was seen during the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout, and one that took so many, myself included, by surprise.[3]

Walking 110 miles over a period of seven days was an experience unlike any other in my life.  But it became clear on day five and six that we had not prepared for escalation beyond the march.  To be honest, it did not occur to me that the legislature would have continuing intransigence upon facing the arrival of our historic march.  When I returned to the Capitol on day nine of the walkout, Thursday, April 12—the final day—I witnessed another form of escalation.  The emotion of the crowd outside the House of Representatives on the fourth floor had reached a fever pitch.  The people were chanting.  The chanting was well organized, and the feeling was aggressive yet clearly nonviolent.  But you could feel the question hanging in the air, “What do we do next?” There were organized efforts to turn votes on specific legislation.  There were still plenty of people outside rallying.  The gallery was packed, as was the rotunda.  The thought that I had in that moment was, “This is all we have. This is all we can do.  If this doesn’t work today, then we need to go back to school and regroup for next time.”  There are forms of escalation beyond what occurred during the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout, but we did not plan for them, and effective escalation must be organized.

A wildcat strike is strike action by unionized workers taken without the approval or authority of union leadership.  To be clear, the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout was never a wildcat strike.  For that matter, it wasn’t a strike at all.  If teachers walked out of school with the blessing of superintendents and school boards, it is best that they returned to school with that same blessing and timing.  The grassroots efforts that demanded the walkout, while highly influential, by and large did not originate with unionized workers.  “We don’t need the union,” is exactly the attitude that right-to-work legislation intends to inspire.  It seems unlikely for a true wildcat strike to occur in a “right-to-work” state.  The very idea of a wildcat strike presupposes the kind of institutional power that automatically derives from an “agency shop” situation where non-members must pay an agency fee to the union for collective bargaining costs.  Perhaps the true success of the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout was that the Oklahoma Education Association was capable of leading nine days of lobbying, marching, and rallying with a unified crowd that swelled to well over 35,000 and included members, many non-members, and even members of competing associations.

Walkouts should not be routine, nor should they be extraordinary.  The occasional work action may be necessary, if for no other reason than to show the bosses—or politicians—who holds the real power.  Oklahoma teachers are mobilized like never before.  Even those who walked in 1990 believe this.  The statement, “The time is now,” need not imply that it is “now or never.”  There will be a next time.  If teachers want it bad enough, it can be done.  In the meantime, we can organize, we can campaign, and we can grow our institutional power of association membership and stop pretending that we can advance our profession and successfully advocate for students without “sticking to the union.”

[1]Mary Ellen Flannery, Educators Continue Fight for K-12 Funding, neaToday(Apr. 13, 2018), http://neatoday.org/2018/04/13/educators-continue-fight-for-k12-funding/.

[2]John Thompson, Five Takeaways from the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout, NONDOC (Apr. 18, 2018), https://nondoc.com/2018/04/18/five-takeaways-from-the-oklahoma-teacher-walkout/.

[3]Aaron Baker, Oklahoma’s 110 Mile March for Education in Retrospect, Spoon Vision Blog (Apr. 16, 2018), https://spoonvision.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/oklahomas-110-mile-march-for-education-in-retrospect/.

About the Author

Aaron Baker is an 8th grade history teacher in Del City, Oklahoma. This essay was adapted from a version published on his blog Spoon Vision that focuses on radical social justice in Oklahoma public schools.