Why Don’t the Oklahoma Teachers Strike?

And other union-related issues

There are unique challenges we face in Oklahoma education because of important differences in our laws.  In other words, national policy discussions sometimes get heated up about issues that just do not exist here.  This is one of those issues.  We have negotiated contracts here, but not the power to strike nor any real leverage with the school board.

(A similar disclaimer will appear in future blog posts about other issues that separate us from the national debate.)

Please read on to find out why teachers and school boards would bother to negotiate if the school board holds all the power.

There are several things that keep teachers from striking in Oklahoma.  The principal reason is simple.  Strikes by school employees are illegal in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma School Code allows for negotiations between school boards and an elected bargaining unit.  The procedure for negotiations is covered in sections 1076 to 1078 of the school law book.  The book can be downloaded if you want to do your own reading.

2014 OSDE School Law Book

Here is the specific wording of the  non-strike provision:

Section 1078.  Agreed Procedure for Resolving Impasses Exclusive – Strikes Forbidden.
The procedure provided for herein for resolving impasses shall be the exclusive recourse of the organization. It shall be illegal for the organization to strike or threaten to strike as a means of resolving differences with the board of education. Any member of an organization engaging in a strike shall be denied the full amount of his wages during the period of such violation. If the organization or its members engage in a strike, then the organization shall cease to be recognized as representative of the unit and the school district shall be relieved of the duty to negotiate with such organization or its representatives. (509.8)

This is full of legal-ese but it is refreshingly concise compared to much of the legislation I read these days.  Some have voiced an opinion that a strike against the state legislature would be acceptable since negotiations are mentioned.  Though I am not a lawyer,  I would advise that it would be dangerous to assume that without a written legal opinion from someone qualified to write it.  The last sentence could be considered enough to prevent all strikes. The law does not spell out criminal penalties for striking.  It is legal for the board to stop paying salaries to teachers as long as the strike continues.  I would be interested in a quality legal opinion about what happens if the school board sues for an injunction to end the strike.  If such an injunction was forthcoming then strikers could be held in contempt, as I understand it.

The law requires schools to negotiate with teachers and procedure is quite detailed.  The law seems to work well in many respects.  At this point, boards and bargaining units at least understand the procedure and know how to navigate it. Whether they like it or not is another matter.

Section 1076. Negotiations
The board of education and the representatives of the organization must negotiate in good faith on wages, hours, fringe benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. To negotiate in good faith shall mean both parties must be willing to consider proposals in an effort to find a mutually satisfactory basis for agreement and must be willing to discuss their respective contract proposals. If either party objects to the other’s contract proposals, the objecting party must support its objections with rationale. Any allegation by either party that there has been a failure to comply with the provisions of this section shall be resolved through the dispute resolution procedure for resolving a unit determination dispute as set forth in subsection A of Section 509.2 of this title.

There is another important aspect of negotiations that everyone needs to understand.   There is an impasse procedure meant to resolve points of disagreement in negotiated agreements.   If the board and the bargaining unit cannot reach agreement on an item or items the next step if fact finding.  The bargaining unit can request information on school funding, for instance.  The district can present last years budget and show funding verses expenditures.   If one or other of the parties decides that there is no hope of an agreement it all goes to “impasse.”  There is procedure for impasse including fact finding and fact finders.  A fact finding report goes to the state board of ed.   If an agreement is reached at the end of this a document is drafted and everyone signs off.  The teachers vote to accept.  If this vote has ever failed I have not heard of it, but it  is possible.

What if there is not agreement on all items?    The law is very plain.  No strike.

I asked a former school board member about this to make sure I read this correctly:

from 1078. Section E
If the effort to resolve differences is unsuccessful, the local board of education shall forward to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in writing its final disposition of the negotiations impasse process within thirty (30) days of the effective date of implementation. (70-509.7)

In other words, at the very end of the process the school board decides what they are going approve.  And that is the end of it.

In spite of everything you have heard of in national politics, in Oklahoma the teacher union cannot strike and cannot force the issue with the board in any way.  Why would the board even negotiate?  That is a reasonable question with an important answer.  There are various ways of explaining it.   Here is how I choose to explain it after watching it during a thirty-five year teaching career.  Your opinion may vary.

In Oklahoma, teacher pay has been historically low.  While some schools do have a better local tax base that frees up some state aid money for salaries, many schools do not have much wiggle room on salary increases that are not funded by the state.   They would, however, like to have good teachers that show up each day ready to teach and take care of their non-teaching duties in a professional manner while also doing a crackerjack job of teaching children.  If they cannot attract the best by offering high salaries, it is a good idea to try to treat teachers well and have a good workplace environment.  Negotiations can be a good way for teachers to communicate in direct way what they think they need.

There are many examples.   Here is one picked at random.  Most school systems in the state have something called Duty Free Lunch.   Students at lunch must be supervised by certified staff.  (As I understand it this has more to do with case law and acceptable standards than it does the language of the law itself.) There has to be a principal or teacher in the lunch room with the children.  With the Duty Free lunch teachers have some time to eat, return calls, and visit the restroom.  Of course some teachers do all of those things as well as grading  few papers or running copies of the next worksheet.  At least it is their choice to actually do their work during their Duty Free Lunch break.  Lest anyone get too excited, this is not a lunch hour.  In many schools it is 20-25 minutes.   Twenty five minutes to eat, use the restroom, run copies, call whomever, check email.   It is a busy time.  But it goes a long way to reduce stress.  It is an important Negotiated Item.  Duty-Free Lunch can be a hassle for administrators because they often have to mind the cafeteria if the teachers do not.  Or they have to make a duty  schedule for each week.

In Oklahoma many forward thinking schools have  agreements which includes teacher-friendly policies.  This helps them get a reputation for treating teachers well.  It helps with retention.  It is much more pleasant for everyone when teachers, administrators and other staff members are all reasonably happy.

There is no evil teachers union threatening a strike to force the school board into coughing up more money that it does not have.   Even though negotiations do not always go well, the school board ultimately has all the power.  This varies from state to state.  But this our reality in Oklahoma.

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