Alberto Morejon, dressed for business in a white button-up shirt and red tie, stood near the steps of the Oklahoma Capitol, surveying what he had started. Around him, several thousand teachers, many who knew him by name, chanted: “One day longer, one day stronger!”
It had been almost two months since Morejon watched news coverage of teachers in West Virginia, who hadn’t had a raise since 2014, as they embarked on a nearly two-week long strike that forced the state’s Republican Legislature to approve a 5-percent salary boost. Teacher salaries in Oklahoma, as Morejon knew well, were not much better than West Virginia both states have been ranked among the five worst in the nation. Morejon, a 25-year-old social studies teacher and baseball coach at Stillwater Junior High in Stillwater, Oklahoma, saw the price it was taking on his colleagues. One fellow teacher, nearing retirement age, had to mow dozens of lawns after school every week to afford his daughter’s college tuition.
So, while West Virginia teachers were still on the picket lines, Morejon decided it was time for his state to follow suit. He created a Facebook group called, “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!” In just three days, the group swelled to 30,000 members. On March 8, the union laid out a list of demands like a $10,000 raise for teachers and $200 million to make up for education funding cuts threatening a massive school walkout on April 2 if they weren’t met. On March 31, the Legislature approved a $6,100 raise, but it wasn’t enough and the walkout was called. On the third day of the walkout, I stood next to Morejon near the Capitol steps, where grateful teachers took selfies with him, and asked him how long this could last.
“If they think they’re going to wait us out, they’re crazy,” Morejon told me. “This thing is going to last as long as they want it to last.”
That was a week ago and the teachers are still at it. The demands have shifted away from a bigger raise and toward more funding to alleviate deep education cuts over the years. Teachers have decided that they would rather risk a public backlash than settle for outdated textbooks, dilapidated classrooms and four-day weeks in nearly a fifth of Oklahoma’s school districts. Morejon’s Facebook group now has more than 76,000 members—some 34,000 more people than there are teachers in the state, a strong indication the Oklahoma strike is having a strong influence on restive and underpaid teachers in other Republican-leaning states like Kentucky and Arizona, where tax-cutting legislators have throttled education budgets over the past decade.
Morejon is a key player in a surprising grass-roots labor movement that has ignited in less than two months. So far, fed-up teachers have found unexpectedly sturdy support among voting populaces that otherwise have tended to favor low to non-existent taxes. As the brush fire has swept west, government officials most responsible for those budget-austerity measures seem almost surprised by how difficult it has been to hold the political high ground. In the early days of the walkout, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin tried to knock the teachers as spoiled ingrates, likening them to “a teenager wanting a better car.” The ad hominem approach hasn’t gone over well. The teachers, many of them women, are redefining attitudes about organized labor, replacing negative stereotypes of overpaid and underperforming blue-collar workers with a more sympathetic face: overworked and underappreciated nurturers who say they’re fighting for their students as much as they’re fighting for themselves.
The festive scene outside the state Capitol last week—part political rally, part concert and part tailgate party—didn’t look like a typically grim picket line. Teachers, students and parents and with little ones in tow danced to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Local school bands played Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Entire families set up tents and lawn chairs, handing out free food and snacks. People marched in circles around the building, wielding and waving signs, many of which slammed the governor. One, which bore Fallin’s face, read, “If ignorance is bliss, then this must be the happiest woman on Earth.”
Inside the Capitol, the atmosphere felt more tense. People gathered around the center dome on the first four floors of the building, chanting, “We’re still here!” and “We’re not leaving!” Teachers fanned themselves in crowded hallways, demanding to meet with their state lawmakers.