'Maybe We Shut the Whole Goddamn State Down': Why Teachers in Red America Are Revolting


Larry Cagle and Catherine Drummond Pizzino are not birds of a feather politically. A self-described fiscal conservative, Cagle—a 54 year old Tulsa, OK, high school English teacher who teaches pre-Advanced Placement and AP classes—believes that cops get a bad rap and said that he understands why the Republican Party has taken hold of power in recent years. “People look at their taxes, and they say, ‘What are we paying for?’” he told Splinter. “And there has been a snatch-up from the Republican Party talking about the tax and spend liberal agenda.”

On the other hand, Drummond Pizzino—a 29-year veteran high school math teacher from Harrison County, WV, in the northern part of the state—said that only one thing about yesterday’s end of a historic, nine-day, 55-county strike, which she characterized as “like a birthday,” frustrated her. “[I’m] disappointed that the Republicans didn’t say they conceded,” she said, laughing.

“We’re at a place where things have to change, we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, and we can’t stay silent anymore.”

Ideological differences aside, Drummond Pizzino and Cagle do have one thing in common: they’re both teachers in states where seemingly everyone in their profession—frustrated for years by the lack of pay raises and drastic cuts to public services—have reached a breaking point.

And that breaking point has manifested into wildcat strikes: After union leadership and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice struck a deal last week, disgruntled teachers opted to keep striking and eventually won a better deal. In Oklahoma, Facebook groups dedicated to a teacher walkout, including one started by Cagle called Oklahoma Teachers United, have gained thousands of followers since last week, capitalizing on the momentum of the West Virginia strike and the frustrations of repeated failures by the state legislature to raise teacher pay.

The problem, in both cases, is the refusal to give public employees a decent living; the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says the last raise came in 2008, and Cagle makes just $34,500. Drummond Pizzino wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that she makes $49,500 a year, despite having taught for three decades and having a master’s degree. Teachers in both states have spoken out about the need to take on second jobs in order to make ends meet.

“We’re a incredibly demoralized core of teachers,” Cagle said. “We’ve been working under substandard wages for well under a decade now. We’re at a place where things have to change, we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, and we can’t stay silent anymore.”

Oklahoma and West Virginia are 15 hours apart from each other and their situations aren’t one and the same. For one, it’s illegal to strike in West Virginia; it’s illegal to even talk about striking in Oklahoma. So teachers have to be careful to refer to what they’re doing as simply calling out sick. “It’s my right to be sick, and it’s not my problem that 15,000 teachers just like me are going to call out sick on the same day,” Cagle said.

West Virginia’s strike, although it ended with an immediate five percent pay raise, was primarily about proposed changes to state workers’ healthcare plan, run by the Public Employee Insurance Agency.

On the other hand, Oklahoma teachers’ grievances are about pay. In addition, Cagle said his group is seeking a 20 percent raise as opposed to a five percent raise that the West Virginia teachers received, and is less confident that Oklahoma legislators will bend to the will of educators. He said he’s prepared to stay out well past a month.

But there are some important similarities between the two states. In the early to-mid 20th century, West Virginia and Oklahoma were both Democratic strongholds on the backs of organized labor. In recent times, they’ve both gotten redder and redder, and were the only two states in the country where Donald Trump won every county. And now, they’re two states where teachers are on the frontlines in an old war, of public versus private, of labor against capital. Both Drummond Pizzino and Cagle point out that money for teacher raises could easily be drawn by raising the natural gas severance taxes in their respective states.

Instead, Cagle said, “the way they pay for it is taxing scenarios that affect middle to lower class people. So in essence, I’m gonna give you a raise, but you’re gonna pay for it.” One of the main criticisms of the Step Up Oklahoma plan for teacher raises, which failed in February, was that the raises would have been funded through regressive taxes, such as on cigarettes and motor fuel. Likewise, Republicans in West Virginia are already threatening to raid the state’s Medicaid fund to pay for teacher raises, although Justice said as he signed the new law that there wasn’t “a chance on this planet that that is going to be the case.”

Cagle wholeheartedly admits that the West Virginia strike has encouraged teachers in Oklahoma that they can win. “West Virginia is a godsend. We in Oklahoma are in love with West Virginia,” he said. “There really is this incredible bond. We’re a thousand miles away, I’ve never met these people, but on our Facebook group, we had 10,000 messages just from West Virginia. They all say the same inspiring thing over and over again. ‘Stay strong,’ ‘You can do this,’ ‘Be courageous.’ I’ll never forget that.”

“Maybe that’s what we do. We just shut the whole goddamn state down.”

It seems that at least some West Virginia teachers recognize their impact on Oklahoma as well. Some teachers protesting inside the West Virginia Capitol yesterday broke out into a chant: “West Virginia first, Oklahoma next!”

“Initially I was like, ‘They’re looking at us?’” Drummond Pizzino said of the movement in Oklahoma. “And then the more I saw it, the more I thought, ‘We’re giving them a model for how to do it.’ You do it as a group, you do it standing together. And once it hit national news, then a lot of teachers around the country were going, ‘Maybe we can do that too.’”

“That” was a strike that united all of West Virginia’s 55 counties and various public sectors, something Drummond Pizzino said hasn’t happened since West Virginia’s last major work stoppage, in 1990, her first year as a teacher.

“Power in numbers,” Drummond Pizzino told Splinter. “The key to this entire thing is—I reached out to some people in Oklahoma—you have to have everyone together. This wasn’t just teachers, it was custodians and service people all the way up to superintendents…we had the full support of everyone, including our communities.”

Cagle has similar hopes for Oklahoma. “We want to invite the state employees out. They’ve been treated exactly the same way,” Cagle said. “They receive the same terrible treatment in wages and benefits. Maybe that’s what we do. We just shut the whole goddamn state down.”

The two teachers both see these strikes as coming from similar causes, and are sparking something nationally, although it’s hard to tell yet exactly what that is.

“I think this’ll last a long time, and I think the biggest effect it has had is that it has woken people up to what’s going on in politics,” Drummond Pizzino said. “I think people are watching politicians a whole lot more closely, and they’re gonna hold them accountable.”

“I don’t have the numbers, I’m just a teacher here in little Harrison County, West Virginia,” Drummond Pizzino said. “But I think this movement is maybe showing that the little man is rising up. We have some very big corporations here in West Virginia, and the ones we’re shouting out here is oil and gas…there’s a larger gap between the haves and have-nots. That could be a little part of where this is coming from.”

“Seeing West Virginia find its feet and its courage, and seeing them win, that’s helping me think it’s not crazy to convince a government to do things differently.”

Despite Cagle’s fiscal conservative leanings, he agrees, and thinks other people—even Republicans—are starting to grow frustrated. On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s top teachers union, released a poll that showed 81 percent of its membership and three-quarters of parents surveyed supported a walkout.

“We [in Oklahoma] couldn’t have voted for Trump harder, and yet 75 percent of parents wanted teachers to strike,” Cagle said. “Seventy-five percent of parents, who you understand, by and large, are Republicans. There is an understanding now that we’ve gone too far.”

The OEA said on Tuesday that it will announce a statewide strategy later this week. Meanwhile, Cagle’s Oklahoma Teachers United and Oklahoma Teacher Walkout, another (closed) Facebook group which has gained tens of thousands of followers in recent days, will meet Wednesday night to set a walkout date. “There will be a walkout,” Cagle said, a hint of frustration in his voice. “There’s no question.”

“I’m intimidated by the idea of what we’re about to do,” Cagle said of the task before him and his fellow teachers. “Seeing West Virginia find its feet and its courage, and seeing them win, that’s helping me think it’s not crazy to convince a government to do things differently.”

As Oklahoma’s preparations begin, West Virginia’s are ending. Schools reopened for the first time in nearly two weeks on Wednesday, and Drummond Pizzino is relishing the chance to get out of what she calls the “Twitter hole.”

“I’m thinking I need to turn off my notifications and go back to school,” she said.

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