Why I Will Vote YES on Prop 2

Why I Am Voting YES on Michigan’s Proposal 2
(and How I Came to My Union Consciousness)

My worlds have been colliding in some interesting ways lately. Back in August of this year, I started writing this blog (which I began cross-posting at Daily Kos in September). I have always been interested in progressive issues and social justice, an orientation that very much informs how I make my way in the world and has led me to pursue the kind of career in which I believed (and still believe) it could be possible to make a real difference in people’s lives, preferably for the better.

My day job is professor of linguistics, and my particular interests are in language variation and the history of the English language. (I write a linguistics blog on these topics called Functional Shift, although I’ve been a bit slack about keeping it up since I started writing Alevei.) Because language can be such a powerful force for good but can also be wielded in ways that can cause great harm, my approaches to research and teaching assume that linguistic justice is social justice. I will write more on that topic in a forthcoming post, because it has been on my mind even more than usual lately, but for now, I will just say that I consider all teaching and academic scholarship to be political acts in themselves, which is to say that I am aware that this is the case and acknowledge it, even though many who are engaged in academic work do not acknowledge it, and a lot of them probably don’t even realize that it is or would not admit it that it is. Of course, we are not all working from the same political orientations or toward the same ends. There is actually far more intellectual diversity in the profession than the popular stereotype of the “typical” academic as politically liberal would suggest.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about the day-to-day work of professoring, although that is definitely relevant here in a couple of ways. I started this post by saying that my worlds have been colliding in recent weeks. The epicenter of that collision is my candidacy for the vice presidency of my faculty union in an election that is now underway and that thus coincides with the “real” election coming up this week. Here in Michigan, the “real” election will include several ballot initiatives, including Proposal 2, which would amend the state constitution to add language that guarantees the right to collective bargaining.

Over the course of thinking about the upcoming presidential election, my own campaign, and Prop 2, I have had occasion to think about how I came to my union consciousness. I wrote an essay on that topic for my campaign blog, and in the process of doing that, I realized that (1.) even most of the people to whom I am closest don’t know that story, although it is central to who I am today, and (2.) perhaps more important, it might be helpful in making a case in support of Prop 2. In the latter spirit, I thought I’d share it here, with a few revisions as appropriate for the different audiences.

I am a professor at Western Michigan University (WMU), an institution that is a collective-bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I have written previously (here and here) about the business of higher education and the financial prospects of faculty at non-elite colleges and universities, so if you are familiar with my earlier posts on that topic, you are already aware that anything that most people would consider “wealth” is pretty much out of the question for most of us here among the WMU faculty. However, we are very fortunate indeed to enjoy a solid middle-class existence and the possibility of continuing upward mobility over the course of our careers here. This good fortune is largely thanks to our union affiliation.

However, with the recent shift in public sentiment in the U.S. toward public-sector workers and unions have come stagnating wages and serious questions as to whether it will be possible for workers in Michigan, including professors like me as well as everyone else who has to work for a living, to achieve or maintain a middle-class existence in the near future. This attitudinal shift was of course engineered by well-financed union-busting politicians and their corporate sponsors, and one result is that even in traditionally worker-friendly states like Michigan, so-called “right-to-work” laws are being taken up by state legislatures. In Michigan, both our state house and senate are Republican-controlled, and we have a Republican governor.

The text of Proposal 2 states that

“No existing or future law of the State or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit” the rights of public- and private-sector workers to bargain collectively.

At a time when collective bargaining rights are far from secure, even in Michigan of all places, a state whose long stretch of prosperity through most of the 20th century is thanks largely to a strong union culture, Proposal 2 is a pre-emptive strike against passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan and against the nationwide GOP attack on unions, a product of that party’s desire for the permanent majority of Karl Rove’s dreams and of their apparent outrage at the idea that working people might actually be able to prosper in this country again someday and that upward mobility might once again be possible even for people weren’t born rich.

When I joined the faculty at Western Michigan University in 2004, I was thrilled to have landed not only a tenure-track job that was about as close to a perfect fit for me as there could be but also that this job was at a strong union campus. The fellow who was chair of my department in those days, a local legend around these parts name of Arnie Johnston, handed me a copy of the 2002-05 WMU-AAUP Agreement as we got into his car to drive to the airport at the end of my campus visit. During the drive, Arnie offered me the position here and strongly encouraged me to read the Agreement carefully as I was considering my options. I had already been offered another position that I was considering seriously, and I had been up front with Arnie about that in our phone conversations preceding my visit. In the car that day, he emphasized the advantages of a union campus.

But I did not need any convincing on that topic. That WMU is a bargaining-unit chapter of the AAUP was an extremely attractive feature of the job and a key factor in my ultimately accepting Arnie’s offer to come here. To this day, there is absolutely no question in my mind that I made the right decision by choosing WMU. There is also no question but that Arnie was 100% correct when he said that there is no comparison between working as a member of a collective-bargaining unit and working on a non-union campus. But of course Arnie was right about pretty much everything union-related: In his 42 years at WMU, he served on the contract negotiation team four times (three times as chief negotiator) and even served on the team that negotiated the very first WMU-AAUP Agreement. In other words, he knew what he was talking about.

And what Arnie said to me on a snowy February day in 2004 as we drove to the airport is just as true today. As tough as things have gotten around here lately, those of us who have worked on non-union campuses or have friends and colleagues who don’t have bargaining units on their campuses know that the situation is far more dire at non-union institutions.

A lot of us know that first hand. I came to WMU after two years in a postdoctoral fellowship at a prestigious public university in Georgia. My experience there was fantastic in many ways, but in Georgia, public university faculties often go for years without any kind of raise, a situation common to all state employees. And that was back when the national economy was considerably stronger than it is now. This was especially true in sunbelt states like Georgia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in part because many employers were (and still are) attracted by the inexpensive, nonunion workforce (Georgia has a so-called “right-to-work” law). And that workforce is skilled and well educated. (Since 1993, college tuition has been free in Georgia to in-state students who have maintained a B average or better in high school and continue to do so in college through the Hope Scholarship program.)

Before I went back to school in 1998 to begin my doctoral work, having finished my master’s degree in 1991, I spent several years working as a research consultant for environmental and civil rights law firms, and I also taught college-level writing and literature part time, first in the Washington, D.C., area and later at several institutions in Georgia and North Carolina. I grew up in south Florida, where organized labor is far from the norm and which has had a “right-to-work” clause in the state constitution since 1944. My parents were not union members, and neither were the parents of most if not all of my friends. So the years between the completion of my master’s degree and my return to school to pursue a Ph.D. were thus critical to my developing union consciousness, especially the two years I spent in North Carolina (1996-98).

During the years I spent working as an adjunct faculty member in North Carolina, a state whose hostility to public-sector collective bargaining is not only palpable in the daily experiences of many workers there but also codified in a 1959 law that directly prohibits public-sector employees from collective bargaining, I became so frustrated with the low pay, disrespectful treatment from employers, and poor working conditions for part-time faculty that I organized a movement to demand improved wages and working conditions on the two campuses where I taught, a community college and a branch of the state university system. I also published what I thought was going to be a one-time fact sheet for about 25 or 30 part-time colleagues, with information about things like how to get cheap dental cleanings (at the community college clinic) and basic medical care (at Planned Parenthood and a local Christian charitable organization that ran a clinic and whose help we qualified for because our income levels came in well below their threshold), but it quickly grew to a monthly newsletter with a circulation of over 600 part-time and full-time faculty at community colleges and universities throughout western North Carolina.

Not only were adjunct faculty members like me exploited ridiculously in North Carolina and elsewhere (and not much has changed for the better since that time), and not only was this also at the expense of the tenure-line hires the schools weren’t making as long as they had us part-timers to do so much of the work for next to nothing, but the tenured and tenure-track faculty at the campuses where I taught were also paid well below the national averages for jobs like theirs in peer institutions, a finding which held across academic disciplines and across all academic ranks. (Interestingly, salaries for administrators at the community college were in every case considerably higher than the national averages for their jobs.)

By “exploited ridiculously,” I mean that the community college where I taught had no qualms about assigning adjunct instructors, or “part-timers,” to teach as many as five courses per academic quarter, meaning that we were “part-timers” in name only. And at a rate of pay of $976 per class per quarter, people who were trying to make a living by adjuncting (like me) had no choice but to accept all the assignments they were offered. One memorable quarter, I taught seven classes: five at the community college, with three different course preps, and two at the university (at $1620 per class). By “memorable” I mean that I was so buried the entire time that I actually remember almost nothing from that period of my life, during which I also waited tables at a local restaurant. My gross earnings that year (1997) were just over $17,000. One thing I do remember is that it was during that seven-course quarter that my grandpa died, and I returned to work after his funeral to an invoice in my campus mailbox at the community college. I was personally responsible for paying the substitute instructors who had met my classes while I was gone.

Not surprisingly, my advocacy got me into some trouble with the administrations at both institutions where I taught, and especially at the community college. The occasion that stands out the most for me was when I published a chart of administrator salaries in my newsletter. Of course this was all public information, so I thought I was actually being tactful when I decided not actually to name the individuals in print. I just listed the administrative titles. I didn’t even identify the institutions; I just labeled the data charts “representative university in North Carolina” and “representative community college,” which I thought made sense because the newsletter went to six or seven other schools besides the two where I taught.

A few days after that edition of the newsletter was published, I arrived at a campus-wide faculty meeting at the community college, having driven straight over after my shift serving lunch at the restaurant where I also worked, just in time to be harangued in front of the entire faculty by the college president, who took exception to my publication of his salary (and in the process outed himself as the “representative community college president” on my chart). I stood there trying to smile politely as a guy who was paid more than ten times what I earned working three jobs thundered at me from the stage. I still had on my waitress uniform. I don’t think the irony was lost on anyone there, except maybe the president. He did not seem aware of anything beyond his own righteous indignation.

As difficult and demoralizing as those two years in North Carolina were, they were also highly instructive. My experience of having to work three jobs in return for near-poverty wages and no benefits, as well as the experience of researching for my newsletter and connecting with other activists at that time who generously shared their knowledge and experience with me, helped to cement my conviction that workers in all sectors have little to no hope for upward mobility without the ability to organize. We simply can’t count on our employers to do right by us out of the goodness of their hearts.

Fast-forward to spring 2007, my third year at WMU, when I joined the WMU-AAUP Association Council as one of our three department representatives. From the beginning, I loved the work and the collegiality that came with being a member of the AC, and I found our meetings to be highly educational not only about labor issues but also about campus issues more generally. And after nearly six years of this work, I am running now for the position of chapter vice president because I still believe strongly that the best hope for protecting and improving the quality of life for faculty at WMU is a strong, robust, and active union. There have been some problems with the chapter leadership in recent years, with the unfortunate consequence that a lot of my colleagues are feeling alienated from their own union. I completely understand and actually share their frustration. It would definitely be easier to walk away, as so many of my colleagues have already done or have been tempted to do.

But a situation in which the faculty feels frustrated by the way things have been going and feels alienated from its union isn’t good for any of us. We have to do something about that. The faculty is the union. Period. Every single bargaining-unit member has an enormous stake in the direction of the chapter and therefore has the right as well as compelling reasons to participate in determining that direction.

I also believe that our best possible defense against the ill political winds that are blowing off-campus is a strong and united faculty on-campus. That means a faculty who is engaged, ready to get involved, and prepared to mobilize when the time comes. And that time is coming. Actually, it is already here.

And those ill political winds aren’t just about a bunch of professors, and so neither is Prop 2. It’s about everyone who has to work for a living. That is why Prop 2 has been endorsed by hundreds of Michigan businesses, religious leaders, and lawmakers.

So if you live in Michigan, please vote YES on Proposal 2 next Tuesday, and please do everything you can to impress upon your friends and family and everyone else you know who is registered to vote in Michigan to do the same. Michigan prospered when we had a strong union culture. The union workers who came before us built this state and led us to prosperity. We have no chance of getting that standard of living back and restoring a real possibility of upward mobility for working people in Michigan if we do not stand together. That is how unions work. That is why they work. We need to do everything we can to try to restore that culture and go from there. Passing Prop 2 is a good start, so please vote YES!

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