In the heart of a deeply red Oklahoma, teachers redefine the image of labor activists and inspire beleaguered colleagues in other red states.
Alberto Morejon, dressed for business in a white button up shirt and red tie, stood near the steps of the Oklahoma capitol, surveying what he had started. Around him, several thousand teachers, many who knew him by name, chanted: “One day longer, one day stronger!”
It had been almost two months since Morejon watched news coverage of teachers in West Virginia, who hadn’t had a raise since 2014, as they embarked on a nearly two-week long strike that forced the state’s Republican legislature to approve a 5-percent salary boost. Teacher salaries in Oklahoma, as Morejon knew well, were not much better than West Virginia — both states have been ranked among the five worst in the nation. Morejon, a 25-year old social studies teacher and baseball coach at Stillwater Junior High in Stillwater, Okla., saw the price it was taking on his colleagues. One fellow teacher, nearing retirement age, had to mow dozens of lawns after school every week to afford his daughter’s college tuition.
So, while West Virginia teachers were still on the picket lines, Morejon decided it was time for his state to follow suit. He created a Facebook group called, “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time Is Now!” In just three days, the group swelled to 30,000 members. On March 8, the union laid out a list of demands—like a $10,000 raise for teachers and $200 million to make up for education funding cuts—threatening a massive school walkout on April 2 if they weren’t met. On March 31, the legislature approved a $6,100 raise, but it wasn’t enough and the walkout was called. On the third day of the walkout, I stood next to Morejon near the capitol steps, where grateful teachers took selfies with him, and asked hm how long this could last.