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!

Why I Will Vote NO on Michigan’s Proposal 5

How I Am Voting on Michigan’s Six Statewide Ballot Initiatives, Part 2:
Why I Am Voting NO on Proposal 5

On Tuesday, November 6, I will vote NO on Proposal 5, “A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Limit the Enactment of New Taxes by State Government.”

I am voting NO because I don’t think the rich asshole who is bankrolling this proposal should get to call the shots for the entire state and subvert the process by which an elected legislature does the job of representing the citizens.

If this sounds a lot like why I am voting NO on Prop 6, as I discussed in my previous post, it’s because — wouldn’t you know it? — it’s the same rich asshole behind both proposals.

The text of Prop 5 as it will appear on the ballot on Tuesday reads as follows:

This proposal would:

Require a 2/3 majority vote of the State House and the State Senate, or a statewide vote of the people at a November election, in order for the State of Michigan to impose new or additional taxes on taxpayers or expand the base of taxation or increasing the rate of taxation.

This section shall in no way be construed to limit or modify tax limitations otherwise created in this Constitution.

Proposal 5 is a recipe for fiscal disaster. It’s a Tea Party scheme to establish minority rule over anything having to do with taxation in Michigan, and it is bankrolled by the rich asshole who is also behind the almost equally stupid and dangerous Prop 6. Prop 5 is opposed by everyone from the United Auto Workers, the Sierra Club of Michigan, and the League of Women Voters to Republican governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters of Prop 5 seem to be limited to the rich asshole and his family, Grover Norquist, and a group known as the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity that buys into Tea Party ideologies about taxation and is heavily financed by the rich asshole through the Liberty Bell Agency, which is run by the rich asshole’s son. Also on board with Prop 5 are the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the freaky fringe Chamber-of-Commerce-wannabe that is the National Federation of Independent Business, which doesn’t even have the sense to be embarrassed by the dishonesty that is evident in its own acronym: NFIB.

And there’s a good reason that everyone with at least half a brain is opposed to Prop 5: If any future tax increase, no matter how slight, has to be approved by a 2/3 majority in both houses, then there is virtually no way any future tax increase could ever pass. Roger Martin, spokesman for the NO-on-5 organization Defend Michigan Democracy, writes that

No tax reform proposal (cut, new tax, closing a loophole or ending a tax break) has ever passed the state Legislature with a supermajority vote. It just does not happen. So, this is not [just] about making it harder to raise taxes….It’s about making state government impossible.

If Prop 5 passes, it would take the yea votes of 25 state senators (out of a total of 38) to pass any proposed increase, which is also to say that it would only take 13 senators to block it. In the House, 73 representatives (out of a total of 110) would have to vote yea under Prop 5 rules, while it would take only 37 representatives to block the legislation.

Prop 5 is thus the love child of a rich, selfish asshole and a virulently anti-tax, anti-government strain of Republicanism that is unfortunately becoming increasingly mainstream, as evidenced by the long, depressing list of dittohead hypocrites who have somehow gotten themselves elected to public office (and who apparently see no irony in living off the generosity of us taxpayers by collecting paychecks and enjoying generous benefits that are funded by the taxes they profess to abhor) and who have sold their souls (and sold out their constituents) by signing Grover Norquist’s so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

The Republican party has spent the last two-plus decades trying to brand itself as the “down with taxes!” party, no matter the cost to the economy or to our most vulnerable citizens. That ideology has become a central tenet of even mainstream Republicanism now, as evidenced by the selection of zombie-eyed granny-starver Paul Ryan as the party’s VP nominee. And now they want to be able to force it on the citizens of this state whether they have a mandate from the people (i.e. a majority in the legislature) or not. Our answer to this has to be a resounding NO.

In other words, Prop 5 would guarantee that the Tea Party gets its way with respect to taxes in Michigan whether it is in power or not. That is of course incredibly undemocratic, but it is also a matter of serious concern for anyone who gives a damn about the social safety net or can imagine a time when emergency measures might have to be taken (such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster) to find a way to raise revenue in a hurry. Further, its passage could jeopardize Michigan’s bond rating, according to the Ann Arbor News, “as lenders [become] wary of our ability to maintain revenue.” The News adds that, should Prop 5 pass, citizens of Michigan can also expect to see increases in the fees we will pay for state-provided services, from license plates to university tuition, and that municipalities would have to take drastic measures to try to blunt the impact of sharp reductions state support, which would be likely to include reducing or eliminating local services and increasing property taxes.

The reality is that sometimes taxes need to be increased or new ones imposed. Times change. Infrastructure ages. So does the human population of the state. And especially in times of prosperity, toward which I hope (and believe) we are now beginning to return, I think it is perfectly appropriate to expect those of us who can afford it to kick in a little more, to support the changing needs of our state and to think about protecting our citizens in the future when things may not be going so well economically. I for one happen to like roads and schools and libraries and first-responders and environmental protection of our natural resources.

But if Prop 5 passes, it would be very, very difficult for the state to find ways to manage its changing – and yes, sometimes increasing – needs for revenue because it would be almost impossible to get a 2/3 majority. As the Ann Arbor News reports,

No one on either side can recall a tax that passed by two-thirds of each chamber. It does not happen.

If Prop 5 passes, that means no tax increase would ever be approved by the legislature nor would any new tax ever be imposed, except perhaps in the most extraordinary of circumstances, and maybe not even then. I am thinking specifically, of course, about that time back in the spring of 2011, when Republicans in the U.S. congress, including VP candidate Ryan, argued that funding for disaster relief be offset by cuts to other programs. As usual in their zero-sum world, they played politics rather than focusing their full attention on the people of Joplin, Missouri, and others who had suffered extraordinary losses in a series of violent storms. Rep. Ryan and his GOP running mate, Mitt Romney, have since both come out in favor of shifting primary responsibility for disaster relief to the states. This would be an especially catastrophic shift for states whose legislatures are hamstrung by idiotic constraints like Prop 5 and by damn-fool legislators who signed Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. (And it is of course one more strong argument in favor of re-electing President Obama.)

In sum, Prop 5 is short-sighted, greed-driven, anti-democratic Tea Party bullshit. For the love of everything, please vote NO.

Why I Am Voting NO on Michigan’s Proposal 6

How I Am Voting on Michigan’s Ballot Initiatives, Part 1:
Why I am voting NO on Proposal 6

Next Tuesday, November 6, I will vote NO on Proposal 6, “A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution Regarding Construction of International Bridges and Tunnels” (full text here). I am voting NO because I don’t think some rich asshole who owns the only bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, should be protected by an amendment to the state constitution from the competition that a new bridge, the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), which will go up two miles south of the rich asshole’s bridge, would present.

According to the language of the measure, passage of Prop 6 would make it so that consideration of any “new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles” would have to go to a statewide referendum before any state funding could be allocated “for acquiring land, designing, soliciting bids for, constructing, financing, or promoting new international bridges or tunnels.”

Such a referendum process would be financially burdensome on the state, of course. And the plan is also cynically manipulative of the anti-tax attitudes of many citizens in a state that was hit particularly hard by the Great Recession, an attitude the rich asshole is counting on, judging by his efforts to get Prop 6 onto the ballot in Michigan in the first place and now to try to get it passed. He has gone to astonishing personal expense in his campaign for Prop 6, which suggests that he is likely to invest similarly significant resources to try to defeat any such referendum, should Prop 6 actually pass. According to the Detroit Free Press, his Yes-on-6 campaign has outspent the No-on-6 side by nearly 40 to 1.

But Prop 6 is also problematic because of the way it seeks to subvert the process by which an elected legislature represents the citizens and does the work of deciding how state revenues should be spent. That is their job. That is how it works.

Let’s be clear about this: Proposal 6 is written for absolutely no other reason than to protect that rich asshole’s monopoly. The NITC, for which an agreement has already been reached between the United States and Canada, has statewide bipartisan support. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, strongly favors it, as do former Michigan governors Jennifer Granholm (D) and John Engler (R), along with a number of similarly strange bedfellows, like the Michigan State AFL-CIO and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. (You can see a list of prominent supporters of the bridge project here. By contrast, check out who’s all for Prop 6.) Even Detroit’s leading newspapers, the liberal Free Press and the conservative News, which rarely find common ground, have both come out in support of NITC and in their opposition to Prop 6.

But the NITC would take toll revenue away from the rich asshole and end his monopoly, which is why he has dropped something like $33M so far to get Prop 6 on the ballot and to blast Michigan voters with misinformation in order to try to get it passed. His campaign has relied heavily on false claims (debunked here and here). One particularly egregious claim that his campaign keeps hammering is that NITC will cost Michigan taxpayers $100M per year, when in fact the entire tab is being picked up by the Canadian government.

The upside of NITC for Michigan taxpayers, apart from getting a fantastic new international bridge that will cost us next to nothing, includes 10,000-15,000 jobs for workers here in Michigan and on the Canadian side. Improving delivery efficiency between the two countries, which is critical for the U.S. auto industry (and therefore to Michigan workers) as well as for other industries, would be another significant economic benefit for the state. The NITC project would also result in an influx of more than $2 billion for Michigan in federal matching funds for which the state would be eligible even though Canada is putting up Michigan’s share of the construction costs.

In other words, NITC is a winning proposition for everyone except one rich asshole.

In sum, Prop 6 is a ridiculous outrage. There is no other way to say this. A rich asshole with more money than sense, no concept whatsoever of a greater good, and a complete lack of acquaintance with the truth simply should not be able to buy himself a constitutional amendment in order to guarantee himself the right to a monopoly for the foreseeable future on the revenue generated from everyone who travels between Detroit and Windsor (and every single thing that is delivered from one city to the other), and to hell with the costs to everyone else.

Vote NO on 6 not only to send this selfish jackass a resounding message that his astonishing greed will not be countenanced by the people of this state but also to support the opportunity to get a state-of-the-art new international crossing that will cost us practically nothing and that will be a great help toward getting Michigan back on its feet