Reece Chenault, national coordinator of US Labor Against the War, told Radio Sputnik's By Any Means Necessary, that "a lot of nasty bills have been passed this year for working people" in Kentucky, due to a new GOP supermajority in the state's legislature and executive.
In January Republicans swept the House of Representatives and governorship in Kentucky, giving Republicans control of both legislative bodies and the Governor's office for the first time in Kentucky history. Following the victory, the Frankfort legislature repealed a law that set higher wages for publicly financed construction projects, and passed an anti-union "right-to-work" law as well as legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires women to have an ultrasound before having an abortion.
"Right-to-work" states prohibit union security agreement between companies and unions.
"This fight isn't just about teachers. It's about all state employees right now," Chenault told hosts Eugene Puryear and Sean Blackmon.
Schools in Kentucky and Oklahoma closed Monday as teachers in both states went on strike to protest pension reforms and to demand pay raises.
In Kentucky, schools in multiple counties closed for a rally in the state capital, Frankfort, in response to a bill passed Thursday changing the way teachers are allowed to use sick days and save for retirement.
Senate Bill 151 bars current employees from contributing sick days to their retirement funds after December 31, 2018, and requires new teachers hired after January 1, 2019, to participate in a hybrid cash-balance retirement plan. Such cash-balance plans are considered less favorable than traditional pensions because they do not include a guaranteed 4 percent annual return for educators. Kentucky teachers are already ineligible for Social Security benefits and will now have a limited number of sick days that can go toward their retirement.
Current teachers will still receive the pension benefits that existed when they were hired, and no changes will be made to teachers' annual cost of living adjustments.
In Oklahoma City, thousands of Sooner State teachers, some of the lowest paid in the country, demanded pay raises after state legislators passed what they called an inadequate increase Thursday.
Before state legislators passed a $5,000 pay raise for new teachers and $8,000 pay raise for veteran educators of 25 or more years last week, Oklahoma teachers had not received a raise in a decade. However, teachers continue to strike in support of a higher, $10,000 pay raise, along with a $5,000 increase for support personnel like bus drivers and custodians and increased funding for school resources like books and computers.
"The fight is being led by grassroots organizations," Chenault told Radio Sputnik.
"They [the teachers] are doing this outside of their own union memberships. They want to be more aggressive. There is new fire and leadership that is emerging out of this conservative attack in Kentucky. The South has something to say. There used to be this real reliance on the typical union that would support these kind of organizing efforts. The combination of Facebook and raw anger in people [over the] sweeping push to privatize public education has spawned these new organizations that are rising to fill these gaps. I think we are going to see more of this," Chenault added.
The rise in grassroots organizations through social media platforms allows teachers to communicate effectively to quickly organize rallies and walkouts. In addition, because the organizations are not linked to a particular union's leaderships, they can make decisions without direction from union leaders.
For instance, the grassroots organization Oklahoma Teachers United has almost 14,000 followers on Facebook. The page's description say the group is "devoted to amplifying the voice of all teachers, providing informative and education content and boosting morale until education funding is restored."
The protests in Oklahoma and Kentucky come about a month after West Virginia teachers won a huge victory, forcing their state's House of Delegates and Senate to unanimously approve a bill awarding all state employees, including teachers and school staff, a 5 percent pay increase. West Virginia educators, also among the country's lowest paid, had staged a nine-day classroom walkout that shut down every school district in the state.