2020

‘One of the most un-American things I’ve seen in my life.’ Oklahoma bill would strip teachers of union rights

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Thousands of Oklahoma teachers pack the state capitol during the 2018 walkout

By: Nate Morris, senior editor

“To me, this is one of the most un-American, un-Oklahoman things I’ve seen in my life,” said Shawna Mott-Wright, Vice President of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. “We talk about the American dream, we work hard and take care of our families and take care of each other… this strips the working people of everything.”

Mott-Wright was speaking about HB 2214, a bill introduced to the Oklahoma Legislature by Republican Representative Todd Russ of Cordell, OK.

The bill, which would become effective November 1, 2019 if passed, would make it illegal for any individual school, school district or board of education to approve teachers engaging in a walkout similar to the one participated in by tens of thousands of teachers in the Spring of 2018.  Any teachers who did participate in a walkout would lose their wages and would have their state license “permanently revoked”.

RELATED READ: The Impending Shutdown Through the Eyes of a Teacher

Rep. Russ’s legislation also apparently seeks to completely eliminate education unions in the state.

The bill requires that all agreements reached between teachers unions and education boards would expire in July of 2021 and could not be renewed. It goes on to state that “a board of education shall not recognize an employee organization as an exclusive representative of employees nor bargain with any such organization after July 30, 2021,” seemingly barring boards of education from engaging in contract negotiation with teachers unions.

“It’s flabbergasting,” said Mott-Wright, “I was taken aback by the audacity.”

The union Vice President stated that organizations like TCTA have been instrumental in negotiating to obtain “FMLA benefits above and beyond current law, plan periods, professional development pay” and more for teachers.

“That’s just off the top of my head,” she said “and those things would cease to exist” if this legislation were to pass.

Throughout the course of modern US history, workers’ unions have secured critical

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Teachers march on Oklahoma’s capitol in April 2018

modern-day rights, including working condition safety standards, the 40 hour work week, child labor laws and more.

Former History teacher and recently elected state representative John Waldron (D-Tulsa) called Russ’s bill an attack on free speech and free assembly, warning that the legislation would only serve to drive more and more teachers out of the profession in Oklahoma.

“Either we fix the problems in education, or the teachers walk,” said Waldron. “If the legislature tries to bar a walkout, they will walk anyway — out of state.”

Representative Melissa Provenzano, former principal at Tulsa Public Schools, echoed Waldron’s sentiments, saying that she would “question the constitutionality” of the bill.

The walkout “was voted upon and approved by school boards and supported by local communities including parents, businesses and civic organizations,” Provenzano said, indicating that it was a larger effort form individual communities.

The representative went on to assert that the legislation would attempt to remove power from local communities, stating “the bill seeks to drive a wedge between a local school board and it’s employees and insert state control.  I will be working to make sure this does not come to pass.”

One of those school board members who worked alongside community members leading up to the walkout was Shawna Keller, a teacher and the Vice President of the Tulsa Board of Education. She said that the legislation perpetuates a “perception of retaliation against teachers”.

She noted that the decision to engage in a walkout was a painful one for board members and teachers alike.

“If it hadn’t been for the community support, it would have been one of the hardest decisions I made as a board member,” said Keller, who marched with educators for 58 miles on their trek to Oklahoma City.

“To assume that we took this decision lightly is insulting,” Keller said.

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Todd Russ, R-OK, the bill’s author

The bill is scheduled to be read on the House floor for the first time on Monday, February 4th, according to the state legislature website.  While opposition is already mounting against the legislation, many are encouraging activists not allow attention on this bill to shift focus from pushing for progress in funding for students and teachers across the state.

“I think this will go down in flames,” said TCTA Vice President Mott-Wright. “We’ve got a lot of really good people down there on either side of the aisle, we really do.”

“This is about way more than us,” she continued, “it’s about democracy in general.”


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Nate Morris is a contributor to the Black Wall Street Times.  Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.  He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015.  Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area.  He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.

 

 

 

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