Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wisconsin's Workers Are the Big Cheese!

I've spent a good bit of time this week looking to Wisconsin. Today is the day the State Capitol is supposed to shut down to allow crews to clean the building - we'll have to see if that happens and how the protesters leave the building and grounds. So far, everything's been calm and peaceful (well, aside from the incessant drum circles) and that should continue. (Side note: it's amazing how well-spelled and grammatically-correct the protest signs of outraged teachers are, isn't it?)

While I appreciate that there are multiple points of view on this issue, here's mine. It's my blog, after all.

Gov. Walker is overplaying his hand.

He had a valid point with his "5/12" plan, which required public sector employees to pay just over 5% into their eventual pensions and 12% into their health care premiums. Times are beyond tight and everyone has to do their share. The unions agreed to these points, at which time the protests and posturing should have ended. But no. Gov. Walker wants to strip away the collective bargaining rights of the unions (well, most of them - more of that in a moment) for all issues other than wages and salaries. In other words - benefits, working conditions, retirement pensions - all of those could now be unilaterally determined by the legislature, rather than going through the collective bargaining process.

"Most of them" - get this. Governor Walker's plan exempts local police, firefighters, and state troopers from the collective bargaining segment. In other words, they can continue to negotiate as a block. Now, I'm all in favor of cops and firefighters, but two interesting things crop up here. One: these are the three unions that overwhelmingly supported Walker's election campaign and two: these unions are overwhelmingly male. So you snowplow drivers - out in the cold. You mostly female teachers - to the back of the class.

Something smells in Wisconsin and I don't think it's the cheese.

Look, I'm based in North Carolina, which is the least unionized state in the country. I also work for the "public sector." I pay 8% into my eventual retirement and have no say-so in that. Currently, I do not pay toward my health care premiums, but that is likely to change this year. I also have no collective bargaining rights and haven't since 1959, when a combination of the Red Scare and the first hints of the civil rights movement made the politicians in Raleigh antsy about anything that had the word "collective."

And enough with the rhetoric about "feeding from the public trough." Public employees pay taxes, too, you know. And, contrary to what some are saying, you don't get rich in this profession. In fact, North Carolina ranks 15th out of the 15 Southeastern states in what it pays those who choose to work in my public service job. Wonder why? In part, at least, due to the lack of collective bargaining and its ability to bring pressure to bear.

Now, don't mistake me. I love North Carolina and I'm happy here - but let's set the record straight. We're a "right to work" state (often sarcastically called a "right to work for less" state) - we're very pro-business and (in part) that means very anti-union. For decades, this worked for us (sort of). We attracted many, many, many manufacturing businesses due to our low costs. Then they found out that Mexico and China were even cheaper. Businesses exist to make money for their investors - bottom line. We did it to the Northeast ("hee, hee, hee, those slobs weren't competitive enough, come on down!") and certain chickens have come home to roost on those issues. We let private businesses run free and while that resulted in hard jobs that paid a decent living wage, it also resulted in the Gastonia Firestone strike, the infamous Hamlet chicken plant fire, and a hell of a lot of empty shells of textile and furniture mills.

Unions have brought about a mandatory minimum wage, the end of child labor, workplace safety standards, and the 40-hour work week, to name a few benefits. Are there union abuses? Sure. Are there corporate abuses? Sure. Guess who gets the bailout?

Go, Wisconsin.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This, Too, Shall Pass

Overall, I have to admit to greatly disliking the title of this post. While well-meaning people have occasionally told me, "Don't worry, this will pass" in the midst of the Bad Times, all too often folks have used this sage advice to quash a good mood by reminding me that yes, yes, this is all swell, cotton candy and ducklings, but it's transitory, so don't be fooled into believing that it's Real.

Pffffffht, I say. But they're (sort of) right, which is a tough pill to swallow.

Exhibit A - yesterday was sunny and warm, with just a whisper of a breeze. My jonquils are in bloom, which for me is always a certain sign of spring. So I strolled around the yard planning my fantasy garden ("and the blueberries will go there and I'll put tomatoes over there . . ."). And then I remember that spring doesn't come in late February to North Carolina and that those crocuses and daffodils are quite likely to get smacked by another frost.

Exhibit B - the schedule for the national conference that both FryDaddy and I are scheduled to present at is up and it looks fabulous! The conference is huge, since every other year, the national melds with one of the regional shindigs (and this is one of those years), and the real challenge is deciding which panels to attend, since so many interesting ones are scheduled opposite one another. Then I get dinged by the Nameless Ones who snark that popular culture isn't a "real" academic field and sooner or later, my school will figure that out and cut off the funding faucet.

Exhibit C - my classes are chugging along nicely, with students engaged in actual conversation about the material, whether that material is nonverbal communication (what's that shirt say about you?), science fiction films and the Cold War, or Romeo & Juliet. It's a bit of a struggle to keep up with the grading and keep my energy level up, but there are tangible rewards for putting in the effort. And then I'm hit with the "what about next semester? What are you doing to keep textbook costs down? But everyone needs to use the same one, but we don't want to step on your academic freedom, but, but, but . . . "

Sigh. There are days when I am convinced that Opus was right, but my area is engulfed in a total lack of dandelions at the moment.

Then I remember:

Rebuttal A: Spring will come. So I need to make plans to tear up the ground in about a month and get ready to plant my own garden. Don't worry so much about what others may do with theirs and know that crocuses and daffodils will come back next year anyway.

Rebuttal B: What I do does matter. (Joss Whedon would remind me that, in fact, "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do," but that's a discussion for another time.) I work hard to research and publish interesting, thought-provoking work, all while teaching a course load that would make a tenured Ivy League prof weep. And if I take the time to listen to the dogs bark (how much have they published, by the way?), I'll get distracted from the work at hand, which simply will not do itself. Go to the conference, present my work, nose around the Alamo, listen to the ideas of others, and come home with new methods, texts, and recharged batteries.

Rebuttal C: My job is to teach and enthusiasm for the subject and for my students is one of the biggest arrows in my quiver. (Or maybe it's a bolt. I like the idea of using a crossbow. Wow - I really do need to get out more!) It's okay to nod and smile and live behind my own eyes sometimes.

There. I feel better now. It's true - no matter what it is, joy or despair, it will pass. So take comfort in that or savor it, whichever is most useful at the time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love Is In the Air . . .

Our first married Valentine's Day is Monday, a day on which FryDaddy and I will both be at our respective schools, a couple of hours apart. (My responsibilities that day include teaching about 1950s Cold War fears in movies with a viewing of Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which isn't a particularly "heart day" movie, but hey! pods. Oh, oh - since the pods are there to take over people - does that make them the original [wait for it] - IPods?? Okay, you can groan now.)

Bad jokes aside, we took Saturday as Valentine's Day - or at least the second part of the day. There were errands to run and so forth at the start of the day, some of which I found quite frustrating - I mean, when did it become unreasonable to expect that you could buy stamps at a post office? But we got ourselves all slicked up and set out to paint the town.

The object of our "date night" was the semi-local symphony, which was featuring an evening of passionate Russians. First up was Tchaikovsky's take on Romeo & Juliet, followed by his only violin concerto (a piece that is now much beloved, but was savaged when first produced - read about the vicious review in the link) then, after an intermission, selections from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet - c'mon, it was Valentine's Day! (By the way, it took years before the score was performed as a ballet - companies kept breaking the contracts, claiming the music was "undanceable," to which Prokofiev replied, "I know what you want! You want drums, not music!" Fiery Russian.) The selections were beautiful and our seats were up close and personal.

We noticed one viola player had an instrument that was very different from the others and at the intermission, we asked her a few questions, which she graciously answered. Her instrument is made from carbon fiber which keeps it from whipsawing in tone with changes in temperature and humidity. She told us about this video and it's worth the minute and a half it'll take you to see it (the other half is outtakes of the filming) - you really can't hurt these things!

However you choose to celebrate Valentine's Day (or, as one of my waggish friends terms it, "Single Awareness Day"), may you be happy in your choice!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Weekend Marriage

When I was younger and just a half-fledged li'l Bird, I flat-out couldn't wait to get all growed up. For then, I reasoned, I'd be able to do whatever I liked, whenever I liked and the world would just have to deal with it.

Did I mention how young I was?

Sigh. The hard truth, of course, is that being a "grown up" is quite a bit more complicated than it first appears to nine-year-old eyes. Yes, you certainly can stay up 'til 2 in the morning, should that be your wish, but morning rolls around at the same time on the clock as it does on every other day and mortgages don't pay themselves just because you want them to, so rise and shine, sunshine. As far as that goes, you certainly can eat rich junk food day and night, but there are consequences to that choice, too. For example, yesterday was the Super Bowl, which is one of those rare days where I stay up past midnight on a school night and allow myself to snack gloriously. The trade-off is that it only happens after making sure my grading and other chores have been accomplished before the celebrations commenced. Moreover, I now have many days when I wish someone would tell me it was time for my nap!

I want to grumble that being a grown-up was supposed to be more fun, and then I catch myself. Because it is more fun. I'm part of the planning, rather than the planned. I write my own permission slips now and I make my own choices.

FryDaddy and I have made some choices that are hard now, but (we both believe) will pay off down the road a bit. It's not total fun having a weekend marriage, even with technology that lets us message and talk during the week. He's putting over 600 miles on his ever-faithful car every week to go back and forth to school and then come home to me for slightly-less-than-48 hours each week, all while knocking out five classes towards his degree. Summer calms down a little, but he'll be taking one course up at school during the first part of the summer while I'm teaching here and then he'll take another during the second half of the summer from home. Even when we're together, we've had to figure out that the weekends are not simply cake and holiday - both of us have work to do to keep this house running and to keep our respective careers on track. And once this is done, it's on to the Master's and Ph.D. work, which will take him farther away to best maximize opportunities - hey, if we're going through the frustration and occasional pain of doing this, we'd best do it right.

In short, it's not easy. But it was a choice. And, as choices, go, it's easier than being a military couple - I have a friend who recently moved to Germany with her kids and had to deal with packing up an entire house and having it shipped, switch the kids' schools, etc., etc. because of her husband's posting. Sure, she sends me cool pictures of her family cavorting in the Alps, but it's hard on them. And let's not even talk about the families of those who are deployed to hotter zones than Germany.

After years spent as a careless grasshopper, making the transition to responsible ant wasn't seamless - my natural inclination for many years was to say, "But I want! I want! No, I don't want that - want that! I'm special - give it to me!" The world rolled its eyes and I had to learn some hard lessons in hard ways - the only way I would learn back in those days. And, let's face it, this adult thing is hard. Deferred gratification is hard, especially in a credit-driven society. Do I think it's worth it?

You bet. Every day that I open an e-mail love note, every day that we chat and I hear about something in one of his classes that has caused his mind to catch fire (metaphorically speaking, that is), every time I hear the pride in his mom's voice and every day that I know I have a soft spot to land when work gets a little crazy. In short, every day, multiple times a day.

Doesn't stop it from being what it is, but it's important to look at the whole package, not just one side. And I wouldn't change it for a gold monkey.