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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Fed Up

Nothing seems to happen until enough people are finally fed up.

March 5, 2018
 
 

There are two stories in the news which reveal the power of people who are mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.

The most prominent is obviously the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida who have turned the Valentine’s Day tragedy at their school into a rallying cry to pressure governmental officials and legislatures to address issues of gun control.

Less prominent is what’s happening in West Virginia, as every schoolteacher in the state has been on strike since Februrary 22nd, including refusing to go back to work after the union heads announced a framework for a deal struck with the governor. Until the deal is completely done, they’re sitting out. 

Teachers had been pushed to the action by a governor and legislature whose proposed 1% raise would have been more than offset by increased costs in health insurance being passed down to the teachers. After years of miniscule to non-existent raises coupled with the proposition of a “wellness program” which would use an app to track activity, potentially resulting in $500 annual penalties if certain metrics were not met,[1] they decided enough was enough.

The fitness surveillance plan was dropped, but as teachers did the math on the proposal, it was all too much. Already living paycheck to paycheck, there was nothing left to lose by striking. 

We don’t know how this is going to end, but the 5% proposed increase in pay, should it go through, would be an unequivocal win for the teachers, and they’re still pushing for more

Reading about the teachers in West Virginia, or Oklahoma, the next state which may be subject to a total walkout has me thinking about whether there will ever be enough people willing to say “enough” when it comes to the fate of public higher ed.

After all, the conditions which have pushed these teachers to the wall – living paycheck to paycheck, relying on public assistance, holding second and even third jobs – are routinely visited on significant numbers of contingent college faculty.

The use of contingent faculty has also clearly eroded the well-being of tenurable faculty, as service and governance work is covered by fewer people, and the most important governance work consolidates in the hands of administrators.

But the notion that solidarity could suddenly extend across classes of faculty seems pretty farfetched at this point. While the average tenured college professor is far from the 1%, and like many middle class folks may be treading water or slightly better, they are also at significantly less risk for falling into a paycheck to paycheck lifestyle.

I also believe many college faculty are reluctant to see themselves as “laborers,” and yet what the West Virginia teachers are reminding us is that the only thing “management” will ever value you for is your labor. In the case of public higher education institutions, management is essentially the state, and all of the trends are moving towards more tracking, more measuring of “production,” and significantly less freedom.

Wisconsin is perhaps the bellwether on this front, as the way the UW system is being remade in the state legislature. When the teaching labor for some is valued at as little as $3000/course (or even less) it is only a matter of time before this becomes the wage for everyone who does the labor. There is no magic spell preventing tenured faculty from the devaluation of their labor, particularly as legislature-driven accountability comes for all public institutions.

The “logic” of the marketplace is the logic of the marketplace. Belief in higher education institutions as an instrument for public good has diminished. Ultimately all any of us have is our labor.

It is interesting to note that West Virginia and Oklahoma are two “poor” states whose natural resources (mining and fracking respectively) have provided significant wealth to a fortunate few, without seeing an overall rise in broad based economic security or well-being, while unleashing devastating environmental effects in the process.

The land of West Virginia has been literally stripped, leaving poison behind. Parts of Oklahoma now tremble from earthquakes as often as California. The Oklahoma legislature couldn’t manage to pass a plan which included an increase of the “gross production tax” on oil wells from 2% to 4% in order to give teachers a $5000 a year raise. Oklahoma currently ranks 49th in teacher salary. 

The sooner we decide enough is enough the better. It’s less disruptive, as it’s easier to dig out of a shallower hole than a deeper one.

One would wish those in power, those who are enriched from resources other than labor would recognize there’s a danger when enough people say “enough,” but I’m not holding my breath.

Someday, once too many people have had enough, change will have to come.

 

[1] This sort of nanny state initiative should be anathema to Republicans, and yet the Republican-dominate legislature thought it would be a grand idea. As long as the surveillance is visited upon your perceived enemies, apparently its okay.

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