French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages
By Bryan Woolston and Brendan O’Brien

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – Thousands of red-clad Indiana teachers swarmed the state capitol building on Tuesday, chanting loudly to protest low salaries and evaluation policies and forcing half the state’s school districts to cancel classes for the day.

“Indiana legislators drew first blood against public education,” read one of the signs hoisted by Indiana State Teachers Association demonstrators wearing red hats and sweaters as they stood at the steps of the capitol.

The “Red for Ed” protest was the latest in a wave of work stoppages by U.S. educators. In 2018, teachers in Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma staged largely successful days-long strikes to demand higher salaries.

Teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles also went on strike this year and secured more resources, especially for underfunded schools.

Indiana teachers make an average of $51,000 a year, in the bottom third of U.S. states for teachers’ pay, according to the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. The state school system has about 1.2 million students.

Teachers in the Midwestern state are asking the Republican-controlled state legislature to commit $700 million this year to boost the average salary statewide to $60,000, near the national average.

Amid frigid temperatures, chanting protesters waved placards reading “I can’t stay for the day, I have to go to my second job,” and “It’s time to use our ‘outside voices.'”

The teachers’ union expected some 15,000 teachers to use personal days to walk off the job as Indiana’s state law blocks them from striking. The state’s department of education could not confirm the number of teachers who were expected to attend.

Still, so many teachers had signed up for the protest that half the state’s 289 school districts have canceled classes, the union said.

“It all comes back to one word, which is respect,” said union Vice President Jennifer Smith-Margraf. “Teaching and education in general are not respected the way they used to be.”

State teachers are asking lawmakers to prevent new standardized testing scores from counting against teacher and school evaluations for this school year. They are also seeking to repeal a new law that requires them to take private-sector jobs for a time to renew their teaching licenses.

Republican Governor Eric Holcomb set up a commission to provide recommendations on teachers’ salaries before the 2021 legislative session.

“Governor Holcomb has made finding long-term sustainable solutions to improve teacher compensation a top priority,” a spokeswoman said on Monday.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Indianapolis and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Bernadette Baum)

GM appeals directly to employees as strike losses pile up

By Ben Klayman and David Shepardson

DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – General Motors Co took the unusual step of appealing directly to employees in a blog post on Friday that laid out the terms of the automaker’s latest offer aimed at ending a month-long strike.

While emphasizing GM’s commitment to the collective bargaining process, the letter, signed by Gerald Johnson, executive vice-president for global manufacturing, circumvents United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership and points to frustration at a lack of progress on ending a conflict that has already cost the company more than $1 billion.

The UAW strike began on Sept. 16, with the union’s 48,000 members seeking higher pay, greater job security, a bigger share of profits and protection of healthcare benefits. Credit Suisse estimated the loss could hit about $1.5 billion.

As part of its revised offer, GM boosted the amount it plans to invest in the United States to about $9 billion from its previous offer of $7 billion, a source familiar with the offer said.

Of the new total, $7.7 billion would be invested directly in GM plants, with the rest going to joint ventures including a potential battery plant near the Lordstown, Ohio, factory that has been idled, the source said.

GM stock was up 2.2 percent in midday trading.

The company said the offer also includes increased compensation through wages and one-time payments, preserving industry-leading healthcare benefits without increasing workers’ costs, enhanced profit sharing with unlimited upside and a higher ratification bonus than the $8,000 previously offered.

For temporary workers, GM said its offer would create a path to permanent employment and include a ratification bonus.

“The strike has been hard on you, your families, our communities, the company, our suppliers and dealers,” GM’s letter read, saying the latest offer increased compensation and promised a path to full-time jobs for temporary workers.

“We have advised the union that it’s critical that we get back to producing quality vehicles for our customers. … Our offer builds on the winning formula we have all benefited from over the past several years.”

A UAW spokesman declined to comment on the new offer.

In a Thursday letter to UAW leaders, GM urged the union to agree to around-the-clock negotiations, while the union insisted in its own letter on dealing with five specific issues first before it responded to the broader proposal made to union negotiators Monday.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra met Wednesday with UAW President Gary Jones and lead GM negotiator Terry Dittes to urge a faster response by the union to the company’s last offer.

One of the five issues the committees are discussing is the fate of four U.S. factories that GM has indicated could close; another is future technological changes to production, according to the UAW letter. Dittes said he did not know when the issues would be resolved, suggesting a final deal may not be close.

UAW workers are concerned that as GM shifts to more electric vehicles it will require fewer workers, and that workers in battery production plants may earn less than those at existing transmission plants.

Reuters previously reported GM told the UAW it could build a new battery plant near the now-shuttered Lordstown factory, and assemble an electric truck at its Detroit Hamtramck plant.

Moody’s said in a Friday report that GM must maintain its flexibility under any new deal to build electric and self-driving vehicles without its fixed costs rising further. It said GM’s annual costs in wages and benefits are more than $1 billion higher than foreign automakers operating U.S. plants.

“It is critical for GM that any new UAW contract not allow an even wider differential,” Moody’s said.

“We expect that the long-term strategic benefits of obtaining a UAW contract … will outweigh the costs of enduring a protracted strike that might last into November,” Moody’s added.

On Sunday, the UAW said the talks took a “turn for the worse” and on Tuesday the union urged GM to boost U.S. vehicle production. Union workers are angry about production of trucks and sport-utility vehicles in Mexico.

The UAW’s membership is largely in the Midwest, in states that could be critical to both sides in the 2020 presidential election, so the strike has drawn the attention of Republican President Donald Trump, his rivals seeking the Democratic nomination, and U.S. lawmakers. They have urged GM to build more vehicles in the United States and shift work from Mexico.

(Additional reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; editing by Patrick Graham, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and David Gregorio)

Workers picket GM plants as UAW contract talks resume

By Nick Carey and Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) – Negotiators for General Motors Co and the United Auto Workers were continuing talks Monday afternoon to resolve a strike that shut down the automaker’s highly profitable U.S. operations.

The UAW on Sunday launched the first company-wide strike at GM in 12 years, saying negotiations toward a new national agreement covering about 48,000 hourly workers had hit an impasse.

Workers took to picket lines outside GM factories, waving signs declaring “UAW On Strike.” During the walkout, UAW members will get $250 a week from the union’s strike fund.

The UAW confirmed Monday morning that talks had resumed and GM said the talks were continuing more than five hours later. Lost production could cost GM up to $50 million a day in pretax profit, RBC Capital Markets estimated in a note Monday. GM could make up the lost production with overtime work after a settlement.

Moody’s Investors Service said in a note Monday the critical issue is whether GM will “secure the operating flexibility necessary” to address challenges including higher hourly costs than foreign automakers, a potential severe downturn in U.S. auto sales and the need for automakers “to begin transitioning to the production of more electric vehicles that will likely require fewer workers to assemble.”

Company and union officials say there are a number of issues to be resolved and that no immediate resolution on Monday is expected.

Contract talks with GM have been overshadowed by a mushrooming U.S. federal corruption probe into top union officials. The investigation has raised questions about UAW President Gary Jones, who a source said was an unnamed official cited in a searing federal complaint last week detailing alleged embezzlement by union leaders.

The strike quickly became a political issue, as both U.S. President Donald Trump and Democrats who want to unseat him in 2020 weighed in. Trump and Democrats see the votes of UAW members in the Midwest as critical to victory.

Trump on Monday told reporters he hoped the strike was a short one after taking to Twitter to urge the UAW and GM to “get together and make a deal!” GM spokesman Tony Cervone said the automaker “couldn’t agree more” with Trump’s call.

GM Chief Executive Mary Barra met with Trump ahead of the strike deadline. Trump has attacked GM for Barra’s decision to stop building small cars at an assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The state is pivotal to Trump’s re-election.

The union wants to stop GM from closing Lordstown and an assembly plant in Detroit. The UAW has said workers deserve higher pay after years of record profits for GM in North America.

GM argues the plant shutdowns are necessary responses to market shifts, and that UAW wages and benefits are expensive compared with competing non-union auto plants in southern U.S. states.

GM initially insisted the UAW dramatically boost its share of healthcare costs but largely dropped that demand, union and company officials said.

In a statement Sunday, GM outlined its offer to the union, saying the package included solutions for the Michigan and Ohio assembly plants currently lacking products, $7 billion in U.S. investment and a signing bonus of $8,000 per worker.

A person familiar with GM’s offer said the company could produce a future electric pickup truck at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant that now has no future assignment.

GM could also build an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, and go through with the proposed sale of the plant to a group affiliated with electric vehicle start-up Workhorse Group Inc.

A new battery plant could give some UAW workers at Lordstown the chance to remain with GM.

The UAW’s top negotiator at GM said the company’s proposal came just two hours before the strike deadline and laid the blame for the strike on the automaker.

“Had we received this proposal earlier in the process, it may have been possible to reach a tentative agreement and avoid a strike,” UAW Vice President Terry Dittes wrote in a letter to GM on Sunday, according to a copy viewed by Reuters.

GM shares closed down 4.3% on Monday.

ECONOMY COULD FEEL IMPACT

A strike will very quickly shut down GM’s operations across North America and could hurt the broader U.S. economy. Prolonged industrial action would also cause hardship for GM hourly workers on greatly reduced strike pay. Suppliers of parts and services to GM’s U.S. operations could also suffer from a long shutdown, as could dealers and consumers.

GM’s workers last went out on a brief two-day strike in 2007 during contract talks. A more painful strike occurred in Flint, Michigan, in 1998, lasting 54 days and costing the No. 1 U.S. automaker more than $2 billion.

The UAW has framed the plant closures as a betrayal of workers who made concessions in 2009 to help GM through its government-led bankruptcy.

Some of those concessions are now matters of disagreement. The union wants to limit GM’s use of temporary workers in its plants, and narrow the pay gap between new hires and veteran workers.

The strike will test both the union and GM at a time when the U.S. auto industry is facing slowing sales and rising costs associated with launching electric vehicles and curbing emissions.

The impact of the strike on dealers and car shoppers will be delayed. GM started off the strike with healthy levels of inventory of some its key, high-margin vehicles.

A prolonged strike could delay the planned introduction next spring of GM’s redesigned full-size SUVs in Arlington, Texas. Among the company’s most profitable vehicles, they include the Cadillac Escalade, the GMC Yukon and the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.

(Reporting by Nick Carey, David Shepardson, Ben Klayman and Joseph White; Writing by Nick Carey and Joseph White; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Zimbabwe to charge activist pastor with subverting the government

Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire is escorted by detectives as he arrives at the Harare Magistrates courts in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire appeared in court on Thursday to be charged with subverting the government, punishable by up to 20 years in jail, after protests this week in which three people were killed and dozens injured.

Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday and initially charged by police with the lesser crime of inciting public violence after he posted on social media encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike call by the biggest labor union.

On entering the courthouse, he told reporters: “None of what I am accused of is what I have done at all. If we have true justice in this country, let’s see it at play. I am very upset.”

The Harare pastor rose to prominence as a critic of former strongman Robert Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016. He was tried on similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted by the High Court for lack of evidence.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government decreed a 150 percent hike in fuel prices last weekend, which triggered the three-day strike, during which protesters barricaded roads with rocks and burnt tires in the capital Harare. In the second city of Bulawayo, shops were looted.

Police rounded up 600 people, including Mawarire and an opposition legislator, in a crackdown on protesters. A doctors’ group said they had treated 68 people for gunshot wounds.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, whose lawyers are representing Mawarire and more than 130 others, said police had decided to upgrade the charges against Mawarire.

FAMILIAR WAYS

Mnangagwa promised to repair the struggling economy after replacing long-time leader Mugabe in an election following a coup in November 2017, Zimbabwe has fallen back into familiar ways.

While some businesses reopened on Thursday after the strike, new data showed that inflation had soared to a 10-year high of 42 percent in December, even before the fuel price increase.

As dollar shortages batter the economy, rocketing inflation is destroying the value of citizens’ savings.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said its members had treated 172 people, some with dog bites, in private and public hospitals since Monday, when the protests started.

“There are cases of patients who had chest trauma and fractured limbs who were forcibly taken from the hospital to attend court despite the advice of doctors,” ZAHDR said in a statement.

Of the 68 people treated for gunshot wounds, 17 underwent emergency surgery.

On Thursday, there were still long queues at the few filling stations selling fuel, sometimes under the watchful eye of soldiers.

The few shops that were open were packed with people buying basics such as sugar, flour and bread.

Media platforms including Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter remained blocked because of a government order, leading to accusations from opposition figures that it wanted to prevent images of heavy-handed police tactics being broadcast around the world.

(Editing by James Macharia and Kevin Liffey)

After walkouts, U.S. teachers eye elections for school funding gains

FILE PHOTO: Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – High school physics teacher Craig Hoxie filed to run for Oklahoma’s House of Representatives on Friday, a day after the end of a two-week teacher walkout that had pressed lawmakers for school funding.

“A week ago, I would have told you I wasn’t going to do it,” said the 48-year-old Army veteran who has worked in public schools for 18 years, as he drove to the state election board office to submit his paperwork to become a Democratic candidate in this fall’s election. “There is a funding crisis with all public services in our state.”

Teachers and parents in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona have staged collective actions in recent weeks, seeking higher wages and education spending. They say years of budget reductions have decimated public school systems in favor of tax cuts.

Protests in those Republican-dominated states have encouraged teachers unions and Democratic candidates who will try to capitalize on the outrage to score electoral victories. In November’s mid-term elections, 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative seats will be up for grabs.

“This transcends what has traditionally been viewed as blue states and red states,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which boasts 1.7 million members. “The deprivation has gotten so great that people are taking the risk to escalate their activism.”

The union, typically aligned with the Democratic Party, has targeted a number of key states with plans to mobilize in statehouse, gubernatorial and congressional elections this fall.

Nationwide, progressive causes have seen a surge of enthusiasm since Republican President Donald Trump’s election. Protesters have rallied on issues as wide ranging as gun control, gender equality, science and immigrants’ rights.

The Oklahoma walkout demonstrated the power of collective action to influence Republican lawmakers, as well as its limits. The legislature boosted annual education funding by about $450 million and raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,100, yet those figures remained short of the teachers’ demands.

The state’s largest union, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), declared victory and turned its attention to the fall elections to continue the fight for more funding. At least a dozen Oklahoma teachers are seeking office.

In remarks to the Tulsa County Democratic Party on Friday, OEA President Alicia Priest said local union chapters would form election committees to support pro-education candidates, while members will go door-to-door.

“We have to change and try something different,” she said of teachers choosing to run for office themselves.

Several Republican incumbents facing challenges from teacher candidates did not respond to calls for comment.

Sheri Guyse, 42, a parent with two children in Oklahoma public schools who participated in the walkout, pledged that come November, she would remember whose side lawmakers were on.

“A few of their demands were met, and of course that’s a step in the right direction, but the only thing I’m feeling really good about today is that there’s a big election in November where a lot of these legislators will lose their jobs,” she said.

A number of teachers have already won special legislative elections as Democrats in the last two years. Karen Gaddis, a retired teacher who ran on a largely pro-education platform, captured a seat near Tulsa that had been in Republican hands for more than 20 years.

“Things have gotten so bad out here, we’re like a third-world country,”” Gaddis said in a phone interview. She first ran and lost in 2016, but said she has sensed a shift this year as people have grown fed up with budget cuts.

“Education in particular was just being flushed down the toilet,” she said.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on statehouse races nationwide, said more than 50 educators are running in other states. The group said the 26 states in which Republicans control both the legislature and the governorship have seen an average 5 percent cut in education spending over the last decade.

In response, David James, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports that party in statehouse races, said, “It is sad and appalling for the Democrats to be coordinating a national protest effort with their longtime faculty room friends in the teachers unions to push a political agenda in the classroom, at the expense of the nation’s students.”

John Waldron, a social studies teacher, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in Oklahoma in 2016. He is running again as a Democrat in 2018, this time for the state House of Representatives, and said the walkout gives him confidence this campaign will unfold differently.

“We’ve turned a whole generation of Oklahomans into political activists now,” he said.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing and additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Oklahoma teachers end nearly two-week walkout that shut schools

Protester march during a strike by Oklahoma educators demanding more school funding near the Oklahoma state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 9, 2018. Picture taken on April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Heide Brandes

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma’s largest teachers union on Thursday called off a nearly two-week walkout that shut public schools statewide, saying it had secured historic gains in education funding after school budgets were devastated by a decade of cuts.

The move came after the Republican-dominated legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century that raised about $450 million in revenue for education. Republican leaders said they had no plans to go as high as the $600 million being sought by educators.

“We absolutely have a victory for teachers,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told a news conference.

“Our members are saying they want to go back to the classroom,” said Priest, whose union has about 40,000 members.

Some major districts have said they will resume classes on Monday.

The strike was part of a wave of actions by teachers in states that have some of the lowest per-student spending in the country. A West Virginia strike ended last month with a pay raise for teachers, and educators in Arizona protested before classes on Wednesday, without skipping work, to seek enhanced education funding.

The Oklahoma walkout began on April 2 and affected about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students.

Opinion surveys showed it had garnered wide support among Oklahoma voters, many of whom had seen firsthand how students at struggling schools had to share outdated and tattered textbooks and sometimes go to a four-day school week to help save districts money.

Oklahoma teachers, who were seeking a $10,000 annual wage hike over three years, will see an average annual pay raise of about $6,100 from the increased funding, lawmakers said.

In May 2017, their annual mean wage was $41,880, among the lowest in the country, compared with neighboring states such as Texas at $57,830 and Kansas at $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

School districts for the most part supported the teacher walk-out. But they began to run out of wiggle room to make up for lost time when the labor action threatened to extend the school year, piling pressure on teachers to return.

Low wages have created an exodus of educators, causing a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. As a result, school districts had to cut curricula and deploy nearly 2,000 emergency-certified instructors as a stop-gap measure.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

Striking Oklahoma teachers push for more funds, Republicans say done

Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – A strike by Oklahoma educators demanding more school funding entered a 10th day on Wednesday, as the state’s Republican leaders warned they plan no further increases after approving $450 million in new revenue to boost teacher pay.

Schools in the state’s largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, remained closed the day after Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed into law two bills that raised taxes but fell short of teachers demand for another $150 million.

“The governor and lawmakers keep closing the door on revenue options when Oklahomans are asking for a better path forward,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest union for teachers with about 40,000 members.

The strike is part of a wave of actions by teachers in states that have some of the lowest per-student spending in the country. A West Virginia strike ended last month with a pay raise for teachers, and educators in Arizona are also expected to protest on Wednesday, without skipping classes, to seek enhanced school funding.

The Oklahoma strike, which began April 2, has closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students. Schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa were shut on Wednesday.

Fallin has already approved legislation that would raise teachers’ wages by an annual average of $6,100, but teachers are holding out for a $10,000 raise over three years and other increases in school funding.

Saying that education funding was wrapped up, Fallin signed a bill on Tuesday aimed at expanding revenues from Native American casinos and one that will raise about $20 million from internet sales taxes, her office said in a statement. Fallin also approved a bill that repealed a hotel tax, a measure that teachers wanted vetoed.

“As far as this year, we’ve accomplished a whole lot, and I just don’t know how much more we can get done this session,” state Representative John Pfeiffer, a House floor leader and top Republican lawmaker, told the local Fox affiliate on Tuesday.

A non-partisan poll released on Friday showed 72 percent of voters in Oklahoma, where teacher’s pay is near the bottom among U.S. states, supported the walkout.

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Oklahoma Senate takes up tax hike to halt week-long teachers’ strike

FILE PHOTO - Teachers pack the state Capitol rotunda to capacity, on the second day of a teacher walkout, to demand higher pay and more funding for education, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – The Oklahoma Senate is set to debate a tax hike package on Friday to raise education funds in the hope of halting a week-long strike by its public school teachers, who are some of the lowest-paid educators in the country.

The strike that started on Monday has affected more than half a million students. It comes after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states angry over stagnating wages are considering walk-outs.

The Oklahoma package includes a $20 million internet sales approved by the House on Wednesday, a hotel tax hike expected to generate about another $50 million and a gambling measure that could bring in about another $22 million.

Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the state capitol this week seeking fresh spending for an education system that has seen inflation-adjusted general funding per student drop by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Last week, lawmakers approved the state’s first major tax increase in a quarter century, a $400 million revenue package that would have raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,000.

That was not enough for the teachers, seeking $10,000 over three years. Even with the pay raise already approved by lawmakers, they would still receive lower mean salaries than teachers in every neighboring state, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed.

Republican-dominated Oklahoma has the lowest median pay among states for both elementary and secondary school teachers, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The minimum salary for a first year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

Oklahoma has some of the lowest U.S. oil and gas production taxes and a major cause for the budget strain comes from tax breaks the state has granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal year 2015 alone.

When energy prices plunged a few years ago and tax revenue dropped, Oklahoma lawmakers made deeper cuts to education funding, which was already on the decline.

As a consequence of low pay at home and better opportunities across state lines, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced some school districts to cut curricula, and go to a four-day school week.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Michael Perry)

Oklahoma teachers vow to stage second day of walkouts

Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Thousands of Oklahoma school teachers, including those in the state’s two biggest cities, were expected to return to picket lines on Tuesday for the second day of strikes demanding state lawmakers do more to shore up public education spending.

A walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma, whose teachers rank among the lowest-paid in the United States, forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students on Monday, union officials said.

Many of the striking teachers traveled by the busload to Oklahoma City for a mass rally on the capitol grounds before lobbying legislators in the halls of the statehouse. They vowed to continue their protests indefinitely.

“When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children’s future, they will return to the classroom,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, said in a statement posted online.

Classes in about 200 of the state’s 584 school districts were disrupted by Monday’s walkout, according to the union.

Schools in the state’s two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will remain closed on Tuesday as the walkout extends into a second day, union officials said. The Oklahoman newspaper listed more than two dozen districts expected to be shuttered for the day as well.

The job action reflected rising discontent with years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among all 50 states in per-student expenditures and 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

The Oklahoma strikes on Monday coincided with a second day of walkouts by several thousand teachers in Kentucky after legislators there passed a bill imposing new limits on the state’s underfunding public employee pension system.

The protests come a month after teachers in West Virginia staged a series of strikes for nearly two weeks before winning a pay raise. Teachers in Arizona also rallied last week for more educational funding.

Educators say years of austerity in many states have led to wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of school systems. West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that have resisted tax increases.

Oklahoma legislators last week approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, the state’s first major tax hike in a quarter century – a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.

But teachers, some of whom have complained of having to work second jobs to make ends meet, said the package fell short and demanded lawmakers go further by reversing spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Paul Tait)