Cheered on by teachers’ unions, State Secretary of Education Joy Hoffmeister recently proposed a statewide Covid plan that would have seen schools in 39 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties stop in-person instruction if those counties experienced just 3 Covid diagnoses. Only 3 positive tests in the entire county, and every school district therein would send kids home. Unbelievable.
Fortunately, 4 members of the State Board of Education had the common sense to vote this proposal down (the 3 board members who voted yes should be replaced).
Any excuse, including a low-risk but well-publicized virus, appears to be enough for teachers to stay home from work, but get paid, nonetheless. It seems teachers’ unions have learned well the lessons of their successful 2018 strike: unbending obstinacy and elevation of adults’ economic interests over children’s well-being and educational advancement will not be punished, but rewarded.
The Legislature should make sure this lesson is unlearned.
It can do so by revising the state’s existing teacher strike law along the lines of model legislation proposed in 1889 Institute’s publication, released today, Walking Out on School Kids: How Oklahoma Law Enabled The 2018 Teacher Strike, And How to Prevent The Next One. The full paper is available here, and a summary is available here.
Government employee strikes have no place in American government. They are fundamentally unjust in our system because they rob the people of their sovereignty. Government can only fulfill the public’s will through the actions of its employees. If an organization such as a union can compel the government to change policy by removing its workforce through a strike, then the union is in control, not the sovereign people. This is unacceptable in a democracy.
Recognizing this fundamental principle, the federal government and most state governments prohibit strikes by public employees. Oklahoma seeks to do so through 70 O.S. Section 509.8. There is a problem, though. Oklahoma’s law is woefully ineffective.
Oklahoma’s teacher strike law does not carry a punishment sufficient to deter teachers from walking off the job. Ask yourself, do you recall any teachers—or the administrators and local school boards who facilitated them—showing any fear at all that they might lose their job when they walked out on kids in 2018? Or that they would pay any price whatsoever for their dereliction of duty? I sure don’t. I remember a festival-like atmosphere at the State Capitol where teachers sang, chanted, and generally had a grand old time at the taxpayer expense. I suspect legislators also remember being shouted down and prevented from doing the business they were elected to do.
Oklahoma’s teacher strike law also only applies in the context of active collective bargaining negotiations, not to strikes aimed at the Legislature. When you consider that the Legislature sets the minimum teacher pay scale in state law, you quickly realize any strike demanding a universal teacher pay raise will never come in the context of an individual district collective bargaining negotiation. It will always seek to influence the Legislature. That makes Oklahoma’s anti-strike law essentially useless.
A final flaw in Oklahoma’s law highlights a special wickedness laid bare during the 2018 teacher strike: the complicity of elected officials, school administrators, and local school boards in fleecing the taxpayer. The anti-strike law places the responsibility for imposing consequences for violations on the local school boards. They are empowered to stop recognizing a striking union as the collective bargaining agent for the district’s teachers. It appears not a single district did this in 2018. Instead, they almost universally adopted policies that facilitated the strike. These are the people who are supposed to be sitting on the opposite side of the bargaining table from the unions. Instead of representing the taxpayer, they bent over backward to ensure no striking teacher would even have to sacrifice to pursue his or her public temper tantrum. This is shameful.
I propose a very simple solution in my paper: a model bill that squarely and clearly bans public employees from going on strike, punishable by an automatic loss of employment and benefits, like pensions. Striking teachers would also have their teaching certificate revoked.
Texas has a very similar law. Guess what? There hasn’t been a single public employee strike in that state since the law’s passage in 1993. Incidentally, Democrats controlled Texas when that law was enacted, holding nearly every statewide elected office and majorities in both houses of the Texas Legislature. There was a day when even champions of organized labor (like Franklin Roosevelt) recognized government employee strikes for what they are, a subversion of government.
Few public figures in Oklahoma distinguished themselves when teachers left parents, employers, and most of all, kids, in the lurch in 2018. While school officials conspired against the citizenry and legislators appeased unions, many parents quietly seethed. And students learned unproductive lessons from prominent adults in their lives about how to get what you want by throwing a fit.
If legislators decide to correct that shameful lesson and avoid hostage negotiations with teachers going forward, there is a way to do so. It will require them taking their duty to all citizens seriously and enacting something that does more than take up space on a page.
Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at the 1889 Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.