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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, March 11, 2011

If it's going to be so bad.. quit.

by folkbum

That line showed up in a comment. I have so many responses, I am not sure how to work it. So I think I will just do this "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" Style.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit.
A lot of people have. In counties, cities, and school districts across the state, retirements are way up. Which is funny: One reason you hate us is because you think we get to retire early. Apparently, tons of us haven't been, but now will be rather than keep taking your crap.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit. I know you won't because you cannot get a job with pay and benefits like you have in the private sector.
That's not true. Well, it may be more true in this down economy than it would be true otherwise, though I am really not sure why you want another unemployed person out there. But the fact is that I, personally, have plenty of marketable skills and could have been making much more money (with one caveat, in a second) in the private sector for the last 15 years than I do now. And in general, teachers have plenty of marketable skills, which is one reason why half of us leave the profession after fewer than five years. We can have an easier, better-paid jobs in the private sector. Even with 15 years in on the pay scale, I earn less than average for someone with my level of education, according to the BLS.

The caveat, of course, is that I chose a career that defers much of my salary into a pension for retirement. Which reminds me:
If it's going to be so bad.. quit.
I remember when I was in college in the mid-90s, and I read story after story in the news about how my generation (X, we are) and the subsequent ones (Y, Millennials, whathaveyou) would change careers ten, twenty times in our lives. This was being touted as a feature, rather than a bug, and I couldn't understand it. It is too long ago now to remember the exact wording of these stories, but they all had some baloney about how we were too ADD and refused to be put in boxes or something ridiculous like that, and therefore would never want to settle in to a single job forever.

I thought then that it was spin, that it was crap. My grandfather worked the lines at P&G for 40 years and retired. My dad worked at the same job in a hospital pharmacy for more than 30 years until neurosarcoidosis knocked him out of the game. I planned to teach until I was dead--though, to be fair, when I was young I was pretty sure the heart disease would have gotten me by now.

What I mean is this: the fiction that Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers want to be kicked around from job to job without ever building seniority or vacation time or a 401k is crap. It's crap fed to us and to you by the same folks whose pockets are more thickly lined now with what used to be our pensions and 20-year commemorative pen sets and health insurance and retirement gold watches. A fungible labor force benefits management, not labor.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit. I know you won't because you cannot get a job with pay and benefits like you have in the private sector.
This may surprise you, but I'm not in it for the money. Which is not to say the money isn't helpful: When my wife got laid off in 2009 and we had a surprise round of "guess whose check isn't coming to dinner anymore," we got through it without having our house foreclosed or robbing a bank or moving back in with my parents (themselves almost foreclosed that year from Dad's medical bills--America, what a country!). I have felt quite blessed during this recession and, since my wife found re-employment, have been tipping more, buying more, getting those renovations done to the house that we put off for years, giving more to charity, trying in my own way to stimulate the economy. (Unlike America's biggest corporations, I am not just sitting around on my cash reserves.)

But I would not characterize myself as overly wealthy. I don't have, won't ever have, a summer home anywhere. It took me 12 years to pay off my student loans. Search the archives of this blog long enough and you'll find category tags for both "Prius Envy" and a plain-old "My Car," so you can see the difference between what I wanted and what I could afford. I know I'm way past the median and average salaries in the state, so, no, I'm not hurting. But I am getting what I expected, and I am not asking for more.

And though we don't have kids, I would like to think that a teacher's salary could support a family. That my colleagues who have been teaching five or ten years fewer than I have can afford to have, raise, feed, and clothe two or three children. That my colleagues who have been teaching five or ten years longer than I have can afford to send their children to college. It galls me to think that there are those who believe the people who teach our children shouldn't earn enough to raise their own well.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit.
That's kind of like telling Brett Favre he should have retired in 1999. Which is not to say that I am the Brett Favre of English teaching--for one thing, I have never been addicted to pain pills and people complain that I get my summers off.

But rather, teaching is what I do because a teacher is what I am. I'm not working just to be working; since I was 12 years old I wanted to do this, almost exactly this, when I grew up. I am, as odd as it sounds, living my dream. I'm trying every day to exact small miracles from the fabric of the universe so that these kids, Milwaukee's kids, my kids have a shot at living better in a better world than what there is now. And I think I'm pretty good at it. I've won awards. I've been evaluated at the highest levels. Visitors to my school get brought to my room to observe.

Walking away, at least walking away without putting up one hell of a fight, is not about economics.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit. I know you won't because you cannot get a job with pay and benefits like you have in the private sector and I don't understand HOW supposedly educated people can be used as pawns by big labor.
Here's the remarkable thing about some conservatives: They can hold conflicting ideas in their heads without exploding. I can't do it myself, but the union talk is a remarkable example. On the one hand, unions do nothing for their members; we're just pawns. On the other hand, killing the unions "saves" a ton of money, hundreds of millions of dollars that would otherwise be going to--wait for it--union members.

Walker's bill, if my district ditches the contract we negotiated last fall, will charge me ~$500 a month in money that used to go things like paying my mortgage or supporting local arts and businesses. In return, from the forces of now-dead "big labor," I would get back ~$100 a month in money I used to pay in dues. Those were the dues that got me legal protection when administration, parents, students targeted me. Those dues negotiated a deal that says when a student threatens to kill me, I don't have to take him back in class the next day, or ever. Those dues ensure that if I want to transfer schools, my experience and advanced degree don't price me out of a position, and that I can't be replaced with a long-term sub when the budget gets tight. Those dues run workshops for new teachers and fund mentors for veterans who need help. Those dues ensure that I get adequate time during the day to prep, call parents, grade papers, eat lunch, pee. Those dues protect my right to be critical of my district on this blog, on TV, or in print without fear of reprisal. Those are worth a lot more than $100, even $500 a month to me.
If it's going to be so bad.. quit.
And that last part--what the union does beyond getting me paid--is what is truly galling about the whole debacle we have just witnessed. As I said, I am not in this for the money; you want me to take an effective $5000 cut in pay? I'll do it. I'll take $10,000 if you want, if it would make you feel a bit like more of a man.

(Of course, to a first-year teacher, a $5000 cut in pay is a much uglier monkey; they might not be so willing to make that deal.)

But what Walker has done is strip away my right to band together with my fellow employees to negotiate over anything but salary (and that's capped at CPI). The hardest-fought fights in collective bargaining haven't always been over pay and benefits, but about working conditions. What will drive me out of the profession, eventually, is not the pay. It will be the class sizes in the 50s and no time to plan. It will be watching my colleagues get railroaded for not playing ball on the reform of the month. It will be driving a friend to the district headquarters to file charges when a principal refuses to call the police on a student assault.

These are things I didn't used to have to worry about. Because I had a union.

It is a sadly un-American thing to believe that it is okay for the state to forbid employees from working together to address working conditions. That, I'm afraid, is what will make me quit.

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