Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Greetings from My Bunker in Wisconsin

Hello All.

I comment from my bunker here in Wisconsin. I will be venturing out tomorrow to Madison to protest the grotesque assault on worker rights that is masquerading as a "budget repair bill."

I would like to point out that most schools in the UW system get less than 25% of their total funding from the state. Madison gets 8%. We have accepted lower-than-average wages with the assurance that our benefits and pension would be exceptional. In truth, the UW system has already become far less attractive to the top candidates for positions because the benefits are seen as a given if you're a state employee anywhere and the salaries are lower than offers from other states (my "campus" lags more than 15% behind the national average in salaries). The idea promulgated by the Republicans and their masters that public sector workers are "living off of taxpayers" is a convenient fiction. And we have had to do more with less for decades.

I have not had a cost of living adjustment for more than 5 years. (
My OH, who works in the private sector, gets a raise every year.) I have been eligible for merit raises for the past two years, but since there's no money, oh well. I have "sucked up" a 5% pay cut (3% furlough and a 2% promised raise that was just...gone) for the last two years. By the end of this biennium, I will have given the state back $2500 of my salary. At the same time, my class caps were increased to accommodate a surge in enrollment so that we didn't have to hire as many people to teach the course sections these students would have filled. I have continued to give my all to my composition and literature students in spite of all of this.

To say that I am disheartened would be understatement. I've worked for half of my life--my entire adult life, in fact--to become a professor. I am finally (almost) tenured. And I'm depicted by the Right as a lazy, self-serving asshole who deserves a further pay cut to bring my benefit and pension package in line with the private sector. Well, I have 15 years of experience and a terminal degree in my field. I would be making $75K in the private sector if I'd stayed in it instead of coming back to education. Instead, I make $44,500 to teach a 4/4 load AND get kicked in the face by the duly elected government of my state. The pension and health care adjustments amount to over $4000 out of my already below-average salary. I haven't even tried to figure out what my hourly wage would be (factoring in on-campus time, and prep in the evenings, and grading on weekends)--I think it might make me kill myself.

No wonder I feel like such an asshole.


  1. Wow. Yes, this is exactly what I was hearing from about 12 more people in Madison last weekend. Wow.

  2. Holy shit, is this a post-Valentines day hangover or what? Everybody seems ready to quit their jobs today.

    It's a luxury to dream of quitting your job because it means you have a job. That's worth thinking about while you're on the ledge. (I assume you were joking about killing yourself. If not, then don't. Human bodies make an unbelievable mess when they expire. You might wish the burden of cleaning you up on the people you hate but they are never the ones who get stuck with the job.)

    Your $75K per year job has evaporated by now so this is what you get. You can blame republicans all you want but how crappy a job did the democrats do that made people elect a bunch of supposed idiots?

  3. Way to empathize, Beaker Ben. Lovely.

  4. We'd love to have you join our protests in California, too. Our paycuts have been 10% the past three years with no hires, no step increases, no COLA, no adjuncts (which means we all got an extra class to teach, no copy budget, and extra students in each class, too, with the administration ADDiNG to its ranks while we cut back at faculty and staff levels). Our health insurance premiums went up and so did copays & daycare costs. We have no paper budget so can't print unless we bring in our own paper, so I visit the deans' office to cadge a ream every few weeks. We could hire two full timers or three adjuncts for every dean or VP added! Hope your situation doesn't get as dire as ours.

  5. Did you know that the two lowest-paid tenured Ph.D. positions in the entire country are in the UW system? (UW-Stevens Point to be exact.)

    Everyone, Wisconsin needs your love and support right now. A decade ago, we were a progressive state. The Dubya years did a number on us, and now we have a constitution that has discrimination built right in, and our crazy-ass Tea Party governor is looking to sh*t all over workers' rights and unions under the guise of "budget repair." (Hmm...coincidence that the only public employees not getting shit on, the police and firefighters, are the only ones to have supported the governor's campaign? Interesting...)

    Bottom line: This isn't just about educators whining over pay cuts. The issues are bigger. The damage will be irreparable -- to education and to many other areas. Solidarity, people.

  6. And BurntChrome, don't forget that you already took a 3% pay cut last year when the state mandated furlough days. For educators, this meant doing the exact same amount of work but with a handful of unpaid days off -- days like Spring Break and Labor Day.

  7. My god, that's just awful. You have my profoundest sympathies.

  8. BurntChrome, you have my useless support from up here in Canada. When our provincial govt took a turn for the conservative, my mom, a hospital janitor was told, your job now pays $8/hour instead of $17. A whole lot of other workers in other areas got similarly screwed. I don't understand this assault on people whose "crime" is making something that might approximate a living wage.

    Elementary and high school teachers have also taken a beating through massive layoffs, which leaves those lucky enough to keep their jobs suddenly in charge of HUGE classes with disabled and ESL and behavioural all cozied up in one overcrowded room. Nobody wins here. But the public is happy to support sticking it to them because they "only work 9-3 and get summers off."

    They've left the university people untouched thus far, but that's next, I'm sure. There's already talk of cutting departments that the general population doesn't see an immediate need for. Who needs philosophy anyway? Linguistics? What the fuck is that? We all know how to talk. Environmental Studies? Global warming has been debunked! Cut 'em!

  9. Geez, Dr. Cranky, I'm thinking we probably work in the same building ...

    BurntChrome, you have my support. I am appalled.

    BeakerBen, that kind of analysis is the reason I no longer read American news. Bush fucked the economy over 8 years. Obama - surprise! - couldn't fix it in 2. And this is whose fault? If Americans want social services and public education, you could try getting your mega-rich or even your only obscenely rich to pay some taxes, instead of assuming that poverty is an indicator of vice.

  10. @thegirlz: I think BC did mention the furlough somewhere in there. In my own state (which is nowhere near in this bad shape -- at least yet; I fear there may simply be a time lag), shorter furloughs were ordered, and, after some discussion, universities given the opportunity to "buy out" the furlough, which mine did -- in part, I suspect, because the faculty were making noises about making sure it was visible: in other words, making sure that at least one day of instruction per professor/class was canceled, and not made up in any way. There were, of course, ethical debates about that one, but it makes a certain amount of sense to me.

    @Merely: I agree. Somehow the American Dream has come to mean that many middle-class (and some poverty/working-class) Americans dream of being in the top 5-10% income-wise to the extent that they actually support policies that benefit only that upper 5-10%. I don't get it, but I suspect that ignorance of basic mathematics/statistics might play a role, except that I consider myself pretty ignorant in those areas, and I can see that it's almost certainly in my personal interest to support policies that provide everybody with a broad safety net, even if it means higher taxes for the rich. If I were ever, by some stroke of good fortune, in those upper brackets, I'd be able to afford the taxes as least as well as I can afford the ones I pay now. And if, as is far more likely, I were ever in an even lower bracket than I am now, at least I'd have a chance at decent housing, food, health care, and education for any member of my family that needed it.

  11. I hear ya, Cassandra. The thing I don't get is why don't people want other people to do well too? Why is one person's success more delicious knowing that someone else is fucked? Tax wealthy people more, tax poor people less. The rich will still be rich, the poor will still be poor, but the medical costs and the tuition are the same for all. Jesus.

    Merely...are you Canadian too? Bitchin! High five!

  12. Dr. Cranky - not only that, I suspect we may be labouring under the same provincial right-wing loons ... solidarity forever! /raises fist

  13. MA, are your provincial parties currently undergoing asinine leadership campaigns? Boo-ya! Fuck the man. Raised fist back at ya...
    (Even though I am self-employed, I happily pay my taxes, and submit HST collected on my consulting.)

  14. For whatever it's worth, here in the US, President Obama just awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian honor) to a rich man who says he should be taxed much more heavily, and who has pledged to give away most of his fortune: Warren Buffett. I wish I could see that as a hopeful sign, but some of the extremely wealthy of the last Gilded Age did the same, and, although Americans (including those in academia) still benefit from programs that bear names like Carnegie and Mellon, it took structural changes arising out of the Great Depression, New Deal, WWII, and, yes, the labor movement to actually shift the distribution of incomes, and of wealth, even a bit for a few generations. So far, I don't see any signs of similar structural shifts, and that's what we need. I'm all for $17/hr. janitors, or more than $17/hr. janitors, if that represents a living wage in the area in which it's offered. In fact, I don't too much mind if the janitor and I make the same amount of money, if we both do our jobs well (after all, mine is more pleasant in a number of ways). On the other hand, if most people are going to be paying for degrees above the high school level, then you're going to have to pay them enough, or make the jobs attractive enough, to make the additional time and money, and the effort expended, on education worth it in terms of the wages paid to people with jobs that require more than high school. The Ph.D. definitely doesn't pass that test these days (at least not unless you find the job really, really attractive, which it seems a number of people do, at least in the abstract).

  15. Cranky and Merely Academic: Another Canadian, representing!

    All this talk about what's going on south of the border makes me both glad to NOT BE THERE and fearful of what happens if and when the worldwide cut, cut, cut trend inevitably makes it to our Great White Northern "paradise"...

  16. Madison schools shut down today when over 40% of teachers called in sick:


    Wow, that was unexpected.

  17. I know nothing about the Wisconsin situation, but I am hoping this comment illustrates why pensions are sore point with many un-civil servants. Things are different where I am. For every dollar the civil servant contributes to his pension, I kick in $15. And that's for a pension, not a 401K or 403b like the private sector is stuck with. If the stock market tanks and civil pension funds are depleted, the taxpayers must make up the difference, because that's the law. Taxes are raised when the stock market tanks, so that pension funds do not lose value like a 401K does. Our civil servants also have exceptional health care coverage - some of them contribute nothing at all, not even a co-pay. And that free health care is a benefit that lasts the duration of their lives. Many of these civil service jobs require only a high school diploma, but their salaries far exceed what a high school graduate could earn in the private sector. There are also many incidents of people gaming the system. Getting a ton of overtime in their final year before retirement to jack up their resulting pension, for example, or filing fraudulent disability claims. We shouldn't judge the pension system on the basis of those unethical actions, but it's inevitable that these trespasses will cast a dim shadow on the whole system.

    I have no problem chipping in to give civil servants the same benefits that the private sector has, but I do have an issue with the whole "I sacrified my life to public service, so why can't I have free health care and an 85K-a-year pension till I die?" Because why should I contribute *more* to some total stranger's pension than I do to my own 403b? Or for that matter, why I can't I choose to give $1 to the pension fund and $14 to a soup kitchen or some other service for the truly destitute?

    If that makes me a right-winger, so be it. I shall now duck while everyone virtually throws things at me.

  18. @Patty: I think the key fact missing from your analysis is that, on average (not, of course, in every case), employees in the public sector receive lower salaries, given the same level of education, than those in the private sector (this is certainly true for the federal government, where salaries only seem high because the overall level of education is considerably higher than in the private sector as a whole -- a situation that has only been exacerbated/accentuated by the outsourcing of a lot of low-wage work like food service and cleaning). That's been the traditional tradeoff: the total compensation package may actually be somewhat similar, but the balance is different; in the private sector the employee bears more responsibility for health spending and retirement savings, and in the public sector the employer pays more for benefits, but less in wages. I'm sure there are exceptions, and cases of fraud and/or gaming the system, but I do think it's less "I sacrificed my life" than "I signed up for a particular salary/benefit balance, and now you're trying to decrease one without increasing the other" -- in other words, the total compensation package for which I signed up is being changed, which is, in practical terms, a pay cut. And I don't know anybody who wouldn't protest a pay cut.

  19. Thank you all for your comments.

    I just got back from Mad-town and will post in a bit, after I have decompressed. The short version is that it was both depressing (our State Senator was a no-show to the meeting, and his minion didn't listen to a goddamned word anyone said) and exhilarating (seeing thousands of people--firefighters, teachers, janitors, students of all ages all together to defend our rights).

    Thanks for your words of support. They mean a lot to me...

  20. I understand, Cassie, but I didn't sign up to have my 403b depleted because my taxes keep getting jacked up to pay for pensions, but unlike a civil servant, I have absolutely no say in the matter (as opposed to very, very little say). I didn't have the choice to leave my job in order to prevent my 403b from being depleted by higher taxes that forced me to lower my contribution. Wherever I am employed, I'll still have to pay 15X as much for their pension as they do for their own pension and I question why I have to contribute more to a total stranger's pension that to my own retirement fund.

    I do agree that the bait-and-switch is unfair, but the system must be reformed and some unlucky bastards are going to be the first ones to have their pensions axed. My great-grandmother is a perfect example of someone who received a pension and free health care for longer than she actually taught in the public school system, and she wasn't exactly struggling to pay the bills, but still, the taxpayers had to support her till the day she died.

  21. @MA
    If your response is any indication of the quality of news from outside the US, I can't say I'm impressed. Yeah, who did say Obama would fix things? I can't remember. Oh, that's right. He did.

    Am I wrong to say that democrats screwed up so bad that they made the sensible people of Wisconsin think voting for tea party candidate was a good idea?

    I was way out of line here and I apologize. It was early, I didn't have my morning coffee or heroin. My thoughts got a little mixed up. What I meant to say was, "This is all Sarah Palin's fault." I didn't mean to make anybody unhappy.

  22. Beaker Ben, I will suppress my further response out of courtesy to the rest of the blog. Though it's very hard.

    Okay, I give in. You know that correlation of voting Republican and stupidity? You don't? Look it up.

    Dr. Cranky, why, yes, my provincial leaders ARE in a state of total chaos and 2 lunatic leadership races! Heaven forfend anyone should actually get on with, you know, governing.

    Jae/Jennie - yes, events in the US and especially the UK scare the hell out of me. It's not as if our neo-con PM is any fan of higher education; a well-educated electorate capable of sustained critical thought is certainly no friend of his. Which is why he's trying to force through that CRTC "false news" amendment (you know, the one that would allow false news to be broadcast as the truth?) Debasing the public discourse is a very powerful tool in the hands of people like him. Look how well it's worked down south.

  23. @Patty:

    I get where you are coming from, but I have two reservations:

    1) The numbers don't add up. Not only is there the question of differently distributed compesation that Cassandra mentioned. More important, the benefits of public employees typically don't really add up to that big a chunk of any state's budget. But cutting them is easier than cutting other things, and it makes it look like the people doing the cutting are taking action. But mostly it is pure theatre.

    2) You mention your taxes getting jacked up to pay for those benefits, but there hasn't been a meaningful tax increase in this country in, oh I don't know, 15 years or so, unless we are talking about property taxes in some states. So I'm having a hard time getting behind your point.

    On the other hand, I can totally see why one might want to see public sector employees get fucked on pensions. After all, private sector employees got the shaft on that one twenty years and more ago. In fact, the way you talk about your 403b is evidence of that. What is now forgotten is that 401k, 403b, IRA and similar contribution plans were never intended as stand-alone retirement plans. The architects of the legislation creating those plans envisioned them as supplements to existing pension plans provided by employers. But of course employers took the existence of those plans as an excuse to get rid of those plans, just as legislators are now using budget shortfalls as an excuse to screw public employees.


    I'm not seeing much competence from any party.

  24. @ AA
    100% with you. It's wrong to say they are fools. They are too good at acquiring power to be dumb.

    @ MA
    I merely asserted (with some snark) that the current mess is the result of long term mistakes, probably by both parties and not the fault of just the current governor. Blaming who's in office now isn't really getting at the heart of the problem, though I understand that it feels good.

    At this point, I don't think we need to explore the issue any more. Feel free to have the last word if you want.

  25. MA,

    I'll see you one "false news" amendment and raise you a gutted census. The attacks on higher education that are sweeping the rest of the Anglophone world are coming here, too--it's only a matter of time. I think we'd better enjoy our raises and sabbaticals while we can.

  26. Patty, pissing on the only people left whose compensation plans approximate the ones that every Tom, Dick, and Harry had in the 1970s is uncool. You should be outraged about your 403(b)not being enough to support you and being made up primarily of your own wages, not snarky to the public sector. We have solidarity with you; show some to us.

    And as usual, I'm with Archie: where's the line item on your tax bill that says "other people's pensions?" Out here, my taxes go to prisons, mostly.

    You, madam, have taken the bait. Spit it out.

  27. What is nearly as depressing as the actions of the Wisconsin governor is how quickly the injection of politics raises FROM CMers the very behaviors they so thoroughly decry when it is seen in the 'flakes.

    No, this is not all Sarah Palin's fault.

    But for anyone with an IQ above kelp to not be able to recognize how the level of jingoistic vapidity that she and her ilk represent undermines true problem solving is just staggering.

    Do both parties share some blame for problems? Duh, yes, of course they do. But so too, they should also share some of the CREDIT. But one side is particularly focused on unilaterally declaring the other side is unAmerican, socialistic, and antithetical to our "way of life" (whatever that is).

    A prime example is how the actions of virtually canonized woulda been 100 years old former president can be shown as truly counter to the expressed beliefs of those who hold him up as a hero -- raised taxes, ran up huge deficits. His one true legacy is instilling a pervasive distrust in anything with the word public or government included (except for a bloated military, of course!)

    Unions are by no means perfect, but they did give the worker some voice in deflecting the effects of unbridled greed. But to hear one side, we really didn't need weekends, basic safety, a limited work week, a living wage ... the free market always (yes, ALWAYS) works better than any regulation. After all, who needs safe food, reliable medications, clean air/water, workplace precautions? Again, greed ... er ... the free market does the right thing.

    Obama didn't say he'd fix everything ... EVERY candidate says that. But, again, one side was pretty successful in erasing any memory of the preceding management under their watch, laying it at the next guy's feet AND castigating him for not being able to reverse it in only two years.

    WE are supposed to be smarter than this.

  28. Actually I'm quite satisifed with my 403b and can't complain about my employer's share of the contribution. I really am lucky in that regard. I also have a very modest IRA as well as my social security income (whatever isn't Ponzi'd away by the time I retire at 75 if I'm lucky), plus I'll be working for another 30 years, so I have time to build up my portfolio between now and then.

    Nothing will change my mind on this matter so there's no point me continuing to banter back and forth. But "pissing on" is a complete exaggeration of my attitude. I'm willing to chip in to support our public servants, even to give them a slightly better quality of life than the private sector (since where I am, private sector salaries are lower than civil service salaries - just ask any private school K-12 teacher). But I draw the line at lifelong pensions and free health care. The penalty - lower salaries, in theory, anyway - does not match the compensation - free health care and a lifelong pension package that will never decrease in value.

    Of course, things are different in every state, but I can't describe any further details without giving away my location. I do object to being described as "pissing on" public servants. I think it's an outrage that I earn more than a firefighter or cop, and I'd like to see their salaries and benefits increased to be comparable to public school teachers. I know they don't have the education requirements, but they do have a specialized skill and their job entials a crazy amount of danger. But there's nothing I can do about that.

    If the pension system isn't reformed, we'll be stuck paying another $3-4K in taxes next year. That is the law - pension portfolios cannot lose value even if the stock market tanks. I'm already paying 31% of my income - I'm in the same tax bracket as someone who earns $83K a year, although my salary doesn't come close to that. It's hardly fair to ask me to contribute more. My intention is not to "piss on" public servants but nor do I think it's fair to "piss on" people earning a lot less than public servants, yet contributing much more to their pensions.

    We will never see eye-to-eye on this - the "pissing on" remark illustrates that - so probably no point trying to convince me.

  29. @ Patty

    You may attempt to divorce yourself from "convincing" but you missed a crucial point in your own post:

    "I'm already paying 31% of my income - I'm in the same tax bracket as someone who earns $83K a year, although my salary doesn't come close to that."

    THERE is the disconnect - codified recently in a tax break extension for those Americans who truly wouldn't NOTICE if a few more dollars were taken from their grotesquely disproportionate incomes.

    But, here is the middle class eviserating itself over making contributions to the commonweal while the sliver of the population which possesses the majority of the income trickles down crumbs and laughs at our gullibility.

  30. Jae/Jennie - I will continue to hope that Canada, alone in the English-speaking world, will manage to avoid the phenomenal evil and stupidity currently engulfing everyone else. We don't HAVE to succumb.

  31. Good point, Aware, but if that gets edged up to 34%, I'll be screwed. I don't care about the very rich - making them poorer is not going to make me wealthier. I do care that I contribute 31% of my income to taxes while some much wealthier person contributes 25%. That is not fair. I agree, the tax code should be revised.

    I don't agree that I'm morally obligated to contribute 15X as much to someone else's pension as they do. On the other hand, if the government made a law that every tax payer had to kick in 15X as much as I do to my own 403b, I'd be thrilled. And if politicans tried to reform the law to reduce that contribution from the taxpayers, I'd probably kick and scream about it just as much as the civil servants are doing right now.

    None of which has anything to do with Wisconsin, of course. Nor does it alter the essential fact that none of your comments are going to change my mind. Still, I appreciate not being called offensive names. Thanks for not doing that!

  32. @Patty:

    It is, I suppose, your right to preemptively remain unconvinced. But I taught at a flagship state university for a number of years, and the state's contribution to my retirement was set at 2X whatever I put in out of my own wages (exactly, by the way, the same as my current private university employer and most private sector employers). I've looked at the available figures on university websites for other state systems since yesterday, and they are similar. The highest "overmatch" I could find was 3X the employee's contribution, which is hardly out of line.

    As for "lifetime healthcare" that strikes me as a bunk claim. Like most Americans, public sector employees transition to medicare when they retire, so if they have "lifetime healthcare" then so do you.

    Maybe you live in a unique state, but I just don't get where this 15X figure you keep citing comes from, nor does your "lifetime healthcare" claim hold any water at all. These sound like the kinds of made up figures that are used to fool people into believing a lot of nonsense for political ends.

    I feel your rage and indignation loud and clear. But what you are saying makes no sense, unless I am missing something.


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