How It’s Supposed to be Done

Following their successful strike, Oklahoma Teachers have decimated their opponents in the state legislature:

For nearly a decade, Republican officials have been treating ordinary Oklahomans like the colonial subjects of an extractive empire. On Governor Mary Fallin’s watch, fracking companies have turned the Sooner State into the earthquake capital of the world; (literally) dictated policy to her attorney general; and strong-armed legislators into giving them a $470 million tax break — in a year when Oklahoma faced a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

To protect Harold Hamm’s god-given right to pay infinitesimal tax rates on his gas profits (while externalizing the environmental costs of fracking onto Oklahoma taxpayers), tea party Republicans raided the state’s rainy-day funds, and strip-mined its public-school system.


Mary Fallin rode a wave of fracking dollars to reelection in 2014, while her GOP allies retained large majorities in both chambers of the legislature. With no organized opposition to counter the deep pockets of extractive industry, Republican officials could reasonably conclude that working-class Sooners had no material interests that their party was bound to respect.

But then, Oklahoma teachers decided to give their state a civics lesson. Inspired by their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers went on strike to demand long-overdue raises for themselves, more education funding for their students, and much higher taxes on the wealthy and energy companies — to ensure that those first two demands would be honored indefinitely.

They won one out of three. Despite the fact the teachers had no legal right to strike — and that the Oklahoma state legislature requires a three-fourths majority to pass tax increases of any kind — the teachers galvanized enough public support to force Fallin to give an inch. As energy billionaire (and GOP mega-donor) Harold Hamm glowered from the gallery, Oklahoma state lawmakers passed a tiny increase in the tax on fracking production (one small enough to leave Oklahoma with the lowest such tax rate in the nation), so as to fund $6,100 raises for the state’s teachers.

The strikers were pleased, but unappeased. They promised to make lawmakers pay for refusing to finance broader investments in education with larger tax hikes. “We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told the New York Times in April. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.” Hamm and his fellow gas giants (almost certainly) made an equal and opposite vow — that those few Republicans who held the line against tax hikes of any kind would not regret their bravery.

Last night, Oklahoma’s GOP primary season came to an end — and the teachers beat the billionaires in a rout. Nineteen Republicans voted against raising taxes to increase teacher pay last spring; only four will be on the ballot this November. As Tulsa World reports:
Republican voters handed out more pink slips to House members Tuesday.

Six of 10 GOP incumbents involved in runoffs were turned out and a seventh narrowly survived, as perhaps the most extraordinary primary season in state history drew to a riotous conclusion.

Between the first round on June 26 and Tuesday’s final results, a dozen incumbents — all Republicans, and all but one of them House members — lost primary or runoff races.

Such turnover is unprecedented for any recent decade, let alone year, and seemed to mark a dramatic shift in the Oklahoma Republican Party.

Each of those defeated Tuesday had, in some manner, earned the wrath of public education supporters during last spring’s occupation of the state Capitol.


Oklahoma’s historic primary season was no aberration. Last year, Democrats in the Sooner State won a series of special election upsets by speaking to popular outrage over disinvestment in education. In Kentucky this past May, a public school teacher defeated the state’s Republican House Majority Leader Jonathan Snell in a GOP primary. Snell had been considered a rising star in his party, and a protegé of Mitch McConnell. But he decided to spearhead a push to slash teachers’ pensions. So Kentucky teachers expelled him from office.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is facing the toughest challenge of his tenure — from the Democratic superintendent of the state’s schools. As the Koch brothers’ favorite governor falls behind in the polls, Walker has rebranded himself as “the pro-education” candidate. Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, Mary Fallin’s 19 percent approval rating is giving Democrats a serious chance of reclaiming the Sooner State’s governor’s mansion this fall.


And last night in Oklahoma, teachers left the GOP’s House caucus covered in debris.

The lesson to be learned here is that it is better to be feared than it is to be liked.

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