An Observation on Wisconsin, Indiana, and Academia

Because I’m an academic, I spend a great deal of time in the real or virtual company of other academics. For example, many of my facebook friends are in the higher ed racket, and given the general slant of academia, it’s not too surprising that they’re vociferous supporters of the public sector unions during the showdowns we’re currently seeing.

That’s fine, and everyone is entitled to hold an opinion. But I can’t help but wonder how many of these Woody Guthries in tweed have lives and careers that are subsidized by adjunct labor and grad student “apprentices.” In fact, as Bill “Thomas Hart Benton” Pannapacker has observed, only one in five Ph.D. aspirants ever makes it to the tenure track, and even then there’s an economic difference between the tracks at Michigan and Mondoville. And as Marc Bousquet notes, that seems to suit the current academic structure just fine.

I believe my friends sincerely mean well and see themselves as championing the working folks when they cheer for fugitive legislators and their ilk. However, I think their support might be more convincing if they were working to organize, say, the proles who dash through the faculty mailroom on the way to another school across town, where they’ll teach another couple of sections in the hope of making it off of food stamps. At least until next semester.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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23 Responses to An Observation on Wisconsin, Indiana, and Academia

  1. Melissa says:

    We have no adjuncts in our program. All full-time with benefits. We also aren’t granting any Ph.D.s, but we are providing valuable mentoring and teaching experience to grad students from across the University. And if we were doing differently, I’d be using my voice and vote against it.

    • profmondo says:

      Melissa, that’s commendable, but can your entire institution say the same? I think my point stands — we in higher ed have a great deal to take care of on our own turf before we have the ethos to become champions of the proletariat.

      Thanks for dropping by, say hey to Aubrey, Zelda, and that Burns fan, and don’t be a stranger.

  2. steve says:

    From my experience at the Megaville down the road from Mondoville, the profs are very good at protecting their own financial interests at the expense of the t.a.’s and the grossly underpaid custodial/maintenance/support staff. I’d like to see them put their money where their liberal mouths are and 1. contribute more by actually teaching a little (like more than 30 students a semester) 2. taking less of the pie so others can get paid a living wage. As for public sector unions, I’d like to see them stand up for the -real- common man, who happens to be paying the real estate, income, and sales taxes that keep going up. I agree that teachers (and some other state workers) work hard, but I find their complaints disingenuous. They try to convince us how poorly they are compensated, while at the same time kicking in almost nothing for their retirement and health care benefits. If you add those perks back to the equation, they make pretty stinking good money. My comments are colored, of course, by my time in the Empire of Waste State.

  3. majormaddog says:

    I can’t speak to the unions in academia part of this, but I find that I’m coming around on defense of the public sector unions. Hey, I’m a liberal, so you’re not surprised, I’m sure. I find some validity in the argument that the attack on public sector unions is really just a divide and conquer tactic being used against unionism as a whole. It’s pretty hard to find an institution on the Left or of the middle class other than unions that can hope to be the counterweight to the big money interests of the rich and/or big business. Taking down public sector unions as an institution just makes overall unionism weaker. Therefore, I find I can defend them in general, even though they’re not always the best institution for the country as a whole.

    Of course, I also find that Governor Walker’s tactics are not supportable in and of themselves. He pushed through some budgetary changes which favor big business and lower taxes (you’re trying to balance a budget so naturally the thing you do is push through legislation to decrease your revenues). This creates a “crisis” which can only be fixed by busting the unions. Not just negotiating with the unions on benefits and pay to fix the hole in the budget, but also just eliminating their right to bargain as a unit (which does nothing to actually fix the “crisis” he created).

    I’m also a little sceptical of the Professor’s admonition to his peers on the union front. It’s as if he is saying, y’all/we’all shouldn’t be supporting our own union unless we’re also able to be active proponents for everyone everywhere to have a union. I’d say in most circumstances, but especially in the current climate, it is not hypocritical to defend your own union, unless you are actively working to prevent others from unionizing. Is perhaps the point here more about barriers to entry (ala my own field)?

    • profmondo says:

      If you haven’t noticed, unions are big business. But where a private sector union may exist in an adversarial relationship with a private business over a division of income, public sector unions are dealing with an institution that has no need to make a profit and can’t go out of business. In short, they exist merely as a means of funneling taxpayer money through the politicians they buy (D-SEIU) to themselves, with no real opposition.

      As for the academic end of it, I think you’ve got it backwards. Higher ed ruthlessly exploits an adjunct/grad-student proletariat for the benefit of a bourgeois class (the tenured faculty and administration). My contention is that we in academia should take care of the labor injustice we at least tacitly condone before we don the mantle of Heroes of the People.

  4. The private sector unions have taken themselves down; no right-wingers to blame there: they have generally responded to market conditions by toning down their requests. Ask for too much, and you run out of employment. Private sector unions got this, and as such, represent 6.9% of the work force.

    Public sector unions have no competition. You cannot take your state, sales, and property taxes elsewhere: you merely transfer them to another union. And while unions of all stripes argue they increased safety, created opportunities for the middle class, and protected the kids–this is mostly taking credit for the work of unions 75-100 years ago. Since then, they haven’t done much… and worse, the public sector unions haven’t done a thing.

    It is difficult–and we have tried–to find examples where a public sector union protected its members from unsafe manufacturing practices, removed children or the elderly from government office sweatshops, or allowed immigrant workers to find affordable housing and churches within a short walk of the factory. The whole thing is a massive farce.

    Also, to blast Gov. Walker is dishonest at best. He campaigned (and was elected) on this very platform. The Wisconsin public sector unions knew this was coming, and–when they didn’t think he could be elected–even offered to help with exactly this issue. When he was elected, they reneged on the deal and started a protest plan of intimidation and ridicule.

    And no matter what happens, the public sector union serves at our pleasure. The numbers are, however, in: the voting public has had enough of them. So what this boils down to is that 36% of the public sector workforce (or approximately 18% of the workforce over all) is claiming that the majority of Wisconsin residents no longer have the legal authority to change the employment structure of their government based on the minority’s say-so. That doesn’t strike people as dead wrong?

    • majormaddog says:

      A lot to digest. Let me address one of your points…”Also, to blast Gov. Walker is dishonest at best. He campaigned (and was elected) on this very platform.” Politifact looked at this claim and found it lacking…
      http://politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/feb/22/scott-walker/wisconsin-gov-scott-walker-says-he-campaigned-his-/
      They say:
      “Walker contends he clearly “campaigned on” his union bargaining plan.

      But Walker, who offered many specific proposals during the campaign, did not go public with even the bare-bones of his multi-faceted plans to sharply curb collective bargaining rights. He could not point to any statements where he did. We could find none either.

      While Walker often talked about employees paying more for pensions and health care, in his budget-repair bill he connected it to collective bargaining changes that were far different from his campaign rhetoric in terms of how far his plan goes and the way it would be accomplished.

      We rate his statement False.”

  5. majormaddog says:

    You say: “It is difficult–and we have tried–to find examples where a public sector union protected its members from unsafe manufacturing practices, removed children or the elderly from government office sweatshops, or allowed immigrant workers to find affordable housing and churches within a short walk of the factory.”

    I’m not sure that’s the point. At least not the point I was trying to make. I equate defense of public sector unions to defending the institution of unions in general. Both political parties get major funding from (and therefore slant their priorities toward) the wealthy and big business. Unions may be big business as the Professor says, but they are one of the few (if not the only) big entity that can offer a counterweight to the influence of the wealthy and big business. They may lobby with the interests of their members at heart (rather than “Working Man” in general), but their interests generally coincide more closely with the middle class than with the wealthy and big business. A defeat of public sector unions tips the balance more away from the middle class. I believe this is bad for me and bad for the country. Therefore, I’m supporting the public sector unions.

    • majormaddog says:

      You say: “And no matter what happens, the public sector union serves at our pleasure. The numbers are, however, in: the voting public has had enough of them. So what this boils down to is that 36% of the public sector workforce (or approximately 18% of the workforce over all) is claiming that the majority of Wisconsin residents no longer have the legal authority to change the employment structure of their government based on the minority’s say-so. That doesn’t strike people as dead wrong?”

      I wouldn’t be so quick to proclaim “the numbers are in.” Republicans were trounced in 2008 and had a pretty good year in 2010. And even before the election in November, the Republicans were quick to proclaim that the “people” (i.e., the throngs of tea partiers who protested here and there) were speaking and the Democrats just had to, had to I tell you, listen to the will of the people. Oh yeah, and the Republicans did not hesitate to use the levers of power available to the minority in the House (see motions to recommit) and Senate (see filibusters and secret holds) to stop or slow things down. I don’t see much difference except that the Republicans are on the receiving end this time.

      • nightfly says:

        I note one fairly substantial difference right off the bat: the Republicans’ actions required their presence and active participation in the legislative process. The Wisconsin bug-out is nothing else than refusal to participate.

  6. Jeff says:

    Major: I’m a middle-class, private-sector worker. I work for a very liberal, family-run small business. I pay for 40% of my health care out of my own pocket and can’t expect an 80% pension someday when I retire.

    For ten years, I’ve also taught college classes as an adjunct. When I raised the issue of low pay in an online forum, one of my deans—a full-time state employee—sneered at me. Several times, I’ve been assured—again, by full-time state employees with pensions—that my university’s adjunct pay rate is consistent with the market rate for the region, so there’s nothing to discuss.

    On the side, I also write. Twice a year, I get royalty statements for projects that took years to bring to fruition, but the government takes nearly half my earnings unless I spend countless hours accounting for minutiae, such as receipts for paper-clip purchases.

    Now, I’m hardly a victim; I’ve made career choices based on factors other than the prospect of a sweet pension, and most days I like my life. But as someone who earns less than the typical public sector worker, pays for more of his own health care than the average public sector worker, and isn’t assured of a stable retirement someday, I’d like to know: How do the interests of the public sector union “generally coincide more closely with the middle class than with the wealthy and big business”? If I choose to support the public sector unions in this ideological battle, what’s in it for me?

    • majormaddog says:

      Jeff – I’m not sure you’re talking about the “typical public sector worker” as much as you’re talking about the “typical public sector worker in your state who also happens to be a tenured professor.” Or correct me if I’m wrong. Because the typical public sector worker at the federal level, for instance, doesn’t get an 80% retirement. That worker gets a retirement based on contributions into TSP (which are sometimes topped up or matched by the government). Even military members who retire after 30 years of service only get 75%. I’ll get 50% when I retire at 20 years. I believe if you take the whole of the public sector worker experience, you’d come up with something about the same and many times less than what you get.

      But even aside from that fact, the public sector workers you describe seem generally to be in the middle class to upper middle class. My argument is that the interests of unions in general fall into line mostly with the interests of the working or middle class. However much difference you see between yourself and these public sector workers, I’d argue there’s that much difference and more between you and the truly wealthy or big business interests. My argument continues to be that, no matter how bad you perceive the public sector unions, their defeat will make things worse for you and me and others in the low or middle classes because it shifts the balance toward the upper class and big business. The Professor might call this class warfare and he might be right. But I just don’t see a very good way forward in our current political system for the non-monied interests without the power of unions.

  7. The Major does well to refute the claim by Walker regarding that he campaigned so ardently on union givebacks; the governor’s perception of his efforts may indeed be quite different from what union perceptions would be.

    Still, there is the issue of what public sector unions have done to merit their power. I still can’t find any examples. Sure, there’s this ideological notion that they “help the middle class.” I see no evidence of that. And this idea that the unions are a balance against big, corporate interests is also fantastic. What balance do they provide? How are they themselves not categorized as a big business–indeed, even a monopoly? Are union heads, many of whom are millionaires, somehow not wealthy? How precisely do public sector union interests coincide with the middle class? I’m not sure I have ever met middle class people who say their interests are in paying higher taxes and fees for government services.

    I think there is a popular projection by the left onto what they *hope* unions provide the middle class, without any substantive review as to whether the public sector is meeting that simple goal. In the battle between hoped-for goals and hard dollars, the dollars will win out. And this is where the facts seem to be settled.

    • majormaddog says:

      Czar – You may be right that the heads of the unions are well off. I’m not sure that’s comparable to the heads of corporations, though. Still, if we say that the heads of both of these big entities use their wealth and power to lobby for the interests of their respective institutions, then that is where the similarity diverges. The CEOs will lobby for the interests of the corporation. This will sometimes coincide with the interests of workers, but only workers in that corporation. And it’s just as likely that the interests of the corporation are in direct opposition to the interests of consumers of that corporation’s goods, for example, or for the public as a whole. The head of the union, while perhaps wealthy himself, will lobby on behalf of the members of the union, a group decidedly not made up millionaires.

      • nightfly says:

        The interests of a corporation can’t long exist in opposition to the interests of its own consumers, nor of the larger public (of which consumers are merely a subset) – if it did the corporation would fail. The public unions, propped as they are by tax dollars, are immune to the pressures that restore equilibrium between companies and consumers. Therefore I find it far more likely that the interests of a public union can run counter to the interests of the public as a whole. (This likelihood approaches 100% in the Wisconsin case.)

  8. Jeff says:

    Major, can you at least give me a plausible scenario under which the weakening of the public unions makes life worse for me? Because I can respect them for simply wanting to maintain the pensions and benefits they’ve planned their lives and careers around, but the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and all this chanting about “the people” is baloney. What we’re seeing is a sliver of the population trying to protect its interests, which is fine, but I’m not buying any claims that they care about me.

    • majormaddog says:

      I can steal a couple of points from this report…
      http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/briefingpapers_bp143/

      Unions help reduce wage inequality.

      They make more money as a unit, which tends to put upward pressure on wages of non-union members as well.

      Unions play a pivotal role both in securing legislated labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job. This helps all workers.

      Without the benefits of all unions, the balance of power lies decidedly with corporate interests, who could use that power to take away labor protections and other rights that workers currently have.

  9. Still no specifics.

    Bear in mind that all corporations’ interests are toward the stockholders, only. This is true for the largest public corporations as well as for the small mom-n-pops (with only two shareholders: mom and pop). This is the entire concept behind shareholdership, which is the foundation for investment. Whenever someone says otherwise–and I don’t mean just liberals, I also mean corporate PR departments–they are wrong.

    So public and private corporations have the same goals.

    Do public and private unions have the same goals? The Major has listed some reasonable ideas, but these apply to private sector unions. No one here would be so unreasonable to suggest that the effect of trade unions on prevailing wages is bad for non-union folks. Heck, it’s a great way for a non-union company to be *forced* to accept a higher profit margin, assuming that the profit translates to the workers’ wages.

    But in a closed public sector shop, what non-union members benefit? There is no non-union DMV collective who benefits from union members’ higher wages. There is no objective correlative between the two. This is one of the many issues surrounding public sector unions, and why conservatives dislike them so intensely: they are not business entities so much as political entities. They exist solely to support union heads, and provide very little demonstrable value in terms of work product or services.

    In a trade union, you can see very tangible results: work product is good, safe, compliant, and reproducible, and is often superior to non-union equivalents (although this difference is eroding in industry). A private sector union provides no benefits comparable to non-union equivalents. It simply becomes the taxpayers burden to support higher wages for no measurable benefit.

    • majormaddog says:

      I think we must be coming to the end of this thread because I’m going to go back to one of the first points I think I was trying to make. I’m learning more about the public sector unions in the course of this discussion, but I stand by my original thought that I defend the public sector unions not on their own behalf necessarily but because they are unions. As I said above, “Taking down public sector unions as an institution just makes overall unionism weaker.” So the Czar may be making good points about public v. private for corporations and/or unions. But my point is not to compare public sector and private sector unions to each other, but to consider them as part of a whole which overall tends to be on the side of workers/consumers and stand as one of the leading political forces in opposition to the big/corporate money that dominates the Republican Party and has great influence in the Democratic Party.
      And to put it in even more partisan terms, I quote Howard Fineman (h/t Political Wire)
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/25/the-real-political-math-in-wisconsin_n_828429.html

      “The real political math in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget or the collective-bargaining rights of public employees there. It is about which party controls governorships and, with them, the balance of power on the ground in the 2012 elections.

      For all of the valid concern about reining in state spending — a concern shared by politicians and voters of all labels — the underlying strategic Wisconsin story is this: Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force.

      Last fall, GOP operatives hoped and expected to take away as many as 20 governorships from the Democrats. They ended up nabbing 12.

      What happened? Well, according to postgame analysis by GOP strategists and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi — who chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2010 — the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason. ”

      So I can just put on my partisan hat and say, the Republicans and conservatives are trying to take out a force for the Democrats and liberals, and support the public sector unions on that basis alone.

      • profmondo says:

        But if even Fineman concedes that state spending (a huge proportion of which is public-sector union driven) is a valid issue, aren’t you saying you don’t give a damn what happens to the states as long as more of your guys can cling to power? And if that is so, why should anyone trust you or your side?

  10. majormaddog says:

    I offer my purely partisan reasoning in response to the purely partisan motivation of those on the Right. We can trust thee, but not me? The problem with your assumption is that you seem to imply the only solution to the state spending issue is through taking out the public sector unions. Remember the crux of this issue isn’t the spending part – the unions have basically agreed to many of the money issues. The problem is that Walker is going beyond the money issue to take away the collective bargaining rights of the unions (but only the unions that don’t vote for his side) and those rights don’t have anything to do with fixing Gov Walker’s partially self-created financial crisis.

    So that kind of sounds like the Governor doesn’t give a damn what happens to his state (since he could fix the issue by just negotiating with the unions) and instead he wants to go above and beyond just fixing the fiscal crisis and instead do what he can so that conservatives and Republicans can cling to and gain more power. Trustworthy indeed.

    • nightfly says:

      Maybe I show my ignorance here, but how does dismantling the public-sector union diminish this “force for the Democrats and liberals”? They’re not free to contribute to Democratic causes anymore? They can’t vote the way the like? They can’t organize a protest about their pensions and benefits unless they’re unionized?

      I don’t get it at all.

  11. There are some things upon which the Major and I agree.

    First, that the GOP recognizes the political threat that unions are. There are no shortage of posts right now that reveal how much money unions donate to Democratic causes. In fact, they are singly the largest contributor–more so than any big “evil” corporation. Knocking them back will reduce Democratic funding–but not so much as to cause a dent.

    Second, that unions prefer to donate to the Democratic party, and that corporations (by far) donate to the GOP. I agree with this; the stats are inarguable.

    Third, by extension of your quote from HuffPo, that a lot of what is going on the states (not just Wisconsin) has little to do with state budget urgency. I might even accept the probability that some of this motivation is capitalizing on public momentum. Many poll numbers increasingly support the governors over the unions–and if one were to take the unions down a peg, now would frankly be a good time.

    However, I must implore the Major to slow his conflation of private sector unions and public sector unions. Their histories, contributions [sic], membership percentages, political dollars, support by the middle class, and coordination are all very different animals. About the only thing they have in common is some terminology, such as “collective bargaining.” But the process and methodologies are often so different that this, too, should be parsed out for skeptical consideration.

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