And another question about shared sacrifice

March 7, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote a critique of the current shared sacrifice trope in debates about budgets at federal and state levels.  The basic point, if you didn’t read it and don’t feel like reading it now, is that not only are the current budget-cutting efforts happening primarily on the backs of the non-rich, but that the rich are in fact benefitting from every single implication of those cuts.  It’s not even not-shared sacrifice; it’s actually redistribution of wealth and power from the bottom up.

Thinking this morning about our faculty union’s current negotiations, I have to ask the question in our context too.  We hear, over and over, that the current economic situation in our state is calling for shared sacrifice.  And our union, as we’ve made quite clear, understands the economic terrain–just as well or better than our system’s negotiators do, because we live with the consequences of it EVERY DAY.  I’m sorry, y’all, but that’s a divide that system management simply can’t cross.  We work, on the ground, with students, faculty, staff, and our local management; we see the direct implications of the state’s economic situation every time a student has to drop out of school because of financial problems, or a faculty member is retrenched, or another manager gets hired, or groundskeepers have to buy their own gloves and masks in order to be safe at their jobs, or…

So, when faculty sacrifice by taking on larger clases, more advisees, increased research expectations with decreased support, salaries that lag behind inflation even before you account for our increasing contributions to benefits packages (which I don’t begrudge, except to the extent that PASSHE management doesn’t seem especially inclined to do the hard work of fighting for better deals because the costs aren’t the same for them), shrinking academic freedom as teaching and research opportunities shrink in the face of increasing student bodies and mandatory “efficiencies” (like our state’s 60-credit transfer articulation agreement), …

Most of these sacrifices, management can make a case for on a one-by-one basis: accept larger classes in return for x; pay more for your benefits in return for y.  The problems are two:

(1) Taken together, they represent a huge problem.  It’s very, very difficult to do the job we’re hired for if every day we have to undertake another rear-guard action to protect our ability to do our jobs.  More directly–when we have to spend as much energy defending our work conditions as doing our work, there’s a big problem.  The problem is, as I think we call know, that anti-academic forces then use that problem as an argument against public higher education.  They get to say (although they’re lying) that faculty are greedy (we’re selling out our students in order to negotiate better contracts) and ineffective (we’re not working hard enough).  We all know that’s bullshit, but it plays well in the press.

(2) Closer to what I thought I’d be writing when I started this post–as faculty bargain away more and more of our positive working conditions in the face of supposed economic catastrophe, where’s the sharing?  That is, what is management giving up in return, and on what grounds are we faculty to believe it’s anywhere near proportional to our own sacrifices?  As faculty positions haven’t grown in proportion to increasing student bodies while management positions have skyrocketed, even as slight reduction on management hires doesn’t come close to balancing that out.  We also all know that because management salaries aren’t on steps or regular increments, they can play all sorts of accounting games with when and how raises are allocated (and often backpaid) so they can say they sacrificed the very raises they were still able to bank.

And beyond that, following closer the logic I started laying out yesterday, there’s an argument to be made that management doesn’t simply avoid sacrificing, but actually benefits when faculty gives up hard won territory.  When fewer of us are teaching more students, cobbling together more grants so we can afford to do any research, advising more, administering programs and departments with shrinking support, and all the rest of it, we’re also less likely to participate in shared governance (on whose time? with whose energy?); we (especially junior and temporary faculty) are scared for our jobs and less likely to make waves; we spend a lot more time doing management’s work for them (my last two CCCC papers are about the trickle-down of management work onto faculty, obscuring that phenomenon by calling it “shared governance”); and on and on.

I’m not as angry at our system management as I am at the Scott Walkers/Tom Corbetts/Chris Christies/Koch brothers/Tea Partiers of the world.  I’ve met a couple of our upper managers and, while I don’t especially appreciate some (most?) of the moves they make, I don’t distrust them personally.  Let’s put it this way–it very often doesn’t seem like their commitments to the work of the system are the same as ours.  There are lots of reasons that might be, and lots of ways of accounting for it, and even probably some good responses to it.

But for now, the important thing is that I see scant evidence that our state system is coming anywhere close to the level of sacrifice they continually ask faculty for, and it’s increasingly difficult to motivate faculty to keep sacrificing without some sense that we’re not the only ones doing it.

UPDATE: Comrade (!) Kevin Mahoney at the KUXchange has written extensively and convincingly about Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, one of the more convincing descriptions of how PASSHE covers for its decisions in economic terms.  His colleague Amy Lynch-Biniek has done some good work calling attention to the inattention system management pays to what matters about teaching and learning, namely, teaching and learning.

Let’s talk about sacrifice

March 6, 2011

So the buzzword of the year so far is “shared sacrifice.”  Scott Walker says he can only balance the Wisconsin budget if those greedy public employees would just be willing to sacrifice a little.  John Kasich of Ohio says the same–at the same time he and his legislature define university professors as managers so they can’t belong to unions, but anyway…  Democrats and Republicans in Washington spew the same line of crap, that in hard times we all have to sacrifice together.

I see people on the left resist this, not stridently enough, by reminding audiences that “sacrifice” is happening largely on the backs of the poor, working and middle classes.  And it is.  But maybe we can make a little better version of the point by asking a slightly different question.

What are the rich sacrificing in any of the current budget proposals?

Nothing.  They get: more tax cuts, tax incentives, tax breaks.  They get: reduced labor costs via union busting, decreased safety and environmental regulations by defunding regulatory agencies.  They get: bailouts when they mismanage their businesses into the ground.  They get: nearly exclusive access to the mechanisms of power because they have all the money they’ve stolen and the leisure time to use it since they don’t do anything useful with their time.

Name one thing that any of this budget voodoo costs the rich.  One.  And then ask yourself who’s making the policies.  And then ask yourself who’s paying the price.  And then ask yourself why we aren’t burning these people out of their houses (Because we’re more ethical than they are?  Apparently).  And then, finally, ask yourself how long you’re willing to continue putting up with a situation in which every single decision coming from a conservative-dominated system hurts YOU and EVERYBODY YOU KNOW, unless you’re one of the wealthy.

The talking heads like to talk about having to make “hard decisions” in difficult times.  Well, for those of us who are actual human beings, who are sick of seeing our humanity and dignity spat on every day by rich people who don’t care whether anybody else lives or dies, we have to ask ourselves a hard question too–how long do we wait?


“Who does that help?”

February 8, 2011

At last weekend’s APSCUF Legislative Assembly, delegates were treated to a Q&A session from our recently hired Chief Negotiator Stewart (or Stuart?) Davidson.  I won’t talk here about the specifics of what he said, except to say that he was impressive.

A comment he made about how he approaches negotiations (something to the effect of always reminding the other side that we do, in fact, have a shared mission) got me thinking (long chain of associations, the underlying rationale behind it between me and God) about one way we (all of us APSCUF members) ought to be responding to just about every management “initiative” or “challenge” we face these days.

What happens if we insist on asking one simple question: Who does this help? 

Notice I’m not asking “What’s the benefit?”  I’m emphasizing “Who” because our management, even the saner, more humane ones, seem to need an occasional reminder that at the end of the day, our system is made up of actual people. 

So, who does it help when KU (or Mansfield, or Shippensburg, or…) management issues retrenchment letters?  It sure doesn’t help the retrenched faculty, who lose their jobs.  It doesn’t help the rest of the faculty, who have to soak up the extra work their former colleagues can’t do any more–or see bargaining unit work get shipped off to other units where it doesn’t belong.  It doesn’t help the students to see programs cut, or classes grow, or advising get thinner because there are fewer people to do it.  It doesn’t help the community.  It doesn’t help the Commonwealth keep students from leaving the state for greener pastures, or keep alums in the state because of their fond memories of watching their faculty get fired and their programs canceled. 

So, who does it help when WCU management tries to comply with the 25% temporary faculty cap in the CBA by simply firing as many adjunct faculty as they can?  Not the students–class sizes inevitably go up.  Not the faculty–class sizes go up, reassign time is harder to come by…  Not departments, who still face pressures to increase majors, course offerings; to comply with sometimes bizarre and/or labarynthine mandates from agencies nobody recognizes…  Management, somebody might argue, benefits from evading a loss at arbitration, but that’s not a “Who.”  And that’s precisely why I insist on asking the question that way. 

I could keep adding examples here, but I think the principle is pretty clear.  If anybody who reads the blog is interested in adding examples, by all means do! 

The most important thing to remember here, I really believe is that we’re not professor-bots; our students aren’t student-bots; our managers aren’t manager-bots.  If we all make a good faith effort to remember that formulas, systems, projections, policies, and all the rest of it don’t mean jack shit in the absence of *people*, then navigating the current terrain of budget problems and bad government leadership (Oh, hi Governor Corbett) gets a lot easier.

Shining some light on the dark underside

January 13, 2011

I read the text of President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night and watched it just this morning.  If you haven’t actually listened to it yet, you probably should.  It is, as he’s given to from time to time, a remarkable performance–humble and sad, visionary and inspirational, humane, all the characteristics of the Obama that drew us to him during the campaign and all too often get washed out by the noise of daily politics.

From cruising around the blogosphere last night after the speech, I gather that even some of the more conservative punditocracy were praising the speech.  I haven’t seen any reactions from Republican members of Congress, but when Charles Krauthammer gives a Democrat the nod, the Democrat must have done OK.  So let’s just say, for the sake of conversation, that Obama’s call for renewed civility and decency in our political discourse made a mark on the people with the loudest (that is, the most mass mediated) voices: elected officials and pundits.

Then I made the mistake (or, faced the demon–choose your metaphor) of beginning to read comments sections of stories about the speech.  I don’t know if YahooNews draws an especially nasty crowd or what, but it didn’t take 2 minutes from the end of the speech before screeches of “traitor” and “communist” and “worst President ever” and “he wasn’t even born here” showed up.  Today, out of the first ten comments, two of them say, “Google FEMA Concentration Camps and find out what Hussein means to do to YOU!”  Nobody explicitly calls for his assassination or violence directly against him, but let’s just say that his call for decency seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.

One of my favorite bloggers, Ed at Gin and Tacos, wrote the other day that one of the big problems in our current political scene is that nobody seems willing to call out the crazies.  What the hell is wrong with them?  How can anybody listen to a neighbor (much less a Congressperson or respected “journalist”) propagate the kind of insanity that we’ve come to take for granted without responding to it?  And I’m not just talking about the militaristic metaphors and the “climate of hate” that’s been flying around for the last few days.  I’m talking about somebody I defriended on Facebook because they thought it was hilarious when Barack Obama got his lip split playing basketball and said something like, “Damn, I wish I’d learned to play basketball so I could have smashed his face in.”  About the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  If one of us peaceniks had said anything of the sort about George W. Bush, we’d have been accused of being TRAITORS (gasp).  In fact, some of us did say terrible things about George W. Bush (if there were an emoticon for a raised hand, I’d use it here) and were routinely called traitors.  Of course, we were also called traitors when we said nothing at all about GWB, but that’s another story…

Anyway, so my question for now is this.  If the big voices in our country got the message last night, and have begun to realize that the way we talk to each other is counterproductive, horrifying, unworthy of us, call it what you will, how do we get that message to the people who really need to hear it–our neighbors and co-workers, the people stockpiling weapons caches in case they need to revolt, the people who hide behind anonymity to threaten others’ safety and well-being, and so on?  There’s an argument to make that it took decades of building up to this level of anger and viciousness and that it will, therefore, take decades to build it down.  We don’t have time for that.  How do we accelerate that process?

I guess another way of asking the question: how do we, as activists, organize in our own communities (physical, virtual, professional, …) to support a more productive, humane discourse?  How do we even begin to talk about rebuilding trust, believing that what people who think differently are doing isn’t automatically an attempt to destroy us?

Once trust has been breached, it’s very difficult to rebuild.  At least right now, that’s the biggest challenge I see.

Politlcal bloggers, trust, and “news”

July 29, 2010

The following post on today’s Daily Kos calls for some additional reaction, I think…,-not-bloggers?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+dailykos%2Findex+%28Daily+Kos%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

Apparently, a couple of genius anchors at CNN are blaming open access to the internet for the Shirley Sherrod “incident” rather than asserting (correctly) that Andrew Breitbart is a lying scumbag, and worse failing to recognize their own complicity in creating the scandal because they (and Fox, and MSNBC, and all the rest of them) didn’t bother to do any verification or fact-checking before they ran the story.

The Daily Kos post handles the first half of that well, reminding readers that Breitbart’s ill intentions don’t mean the internet is bad.  But Kos doesn’t address the other half of the problem, which is the reckless way that the MSM took up the story without finding out ANYTHING about it.  I’m appalled but not surprised (one of the lingering effects of the GWBush administration is that those emotions are permanently detached in my psyche) that CNN wouldn’t even stop to consider that maybe they made the mistake here–not just taking Breitbart seriously enough to pick up the story, but–up against his history of fabrication and manipulation–running it without taking ANY responsibility for its accuracy.

Or put more directly, “the most trusted name in news” lost any trust I might have had when two of its spokespeople so utterly and completely misrepresented their own culpability in the damage done to Shirley Sherrod, the administration, the NAACP, and so on.  That’s not to say none of those groups (except Sherrod, who I find pretty much blameless throughout) have made mistakes of their own.  But notice that even Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration aren’t blaming “the blogosphere” for what happened; they realized they screwed up, and owned up to it.

Keep in mind one important factor here.  The NEWS outlets are the only group involved in this situation who willingly take on the charge of accuracy in reporting.  Sure, the NAACP overreacted and “got snookered” (to use their term).  Sure Vilsack (with or without the administration’s urging) flipped out in fear that the administration was going to be pilloried by Fox and their friends.  But for CNN’s claim to be “most trusted” is based on THEIR OWN claim that they actually do the work of investigating, checking, and verifying stories before they run them.  What else would “trust” be based on?  Who cares if they report everything first if it’s wrong?  Who cares what anonymous sources come to them when those sources aren’t telling anything resembling the truth?

We expect NEWS to be verified, and CNN is quite simply avoiding their own culpability by pretending that this was anybody’s fault but their own.