Back to basics. Feels good to write with some fire. I need to remind you, and remain vigilant myself…You are not your career. You are not your job. Your identity is not what you do to sustain yourself monetarily within society. Reducing yourself to any single characteristic, whether it be your title or your job performance, is a deeply damaging act. Just take a look here for trusted words via The Atlantic from Arthur C Brooks. In short, one vital facet of work in modern society is that your company and or institution does not give one flippant fuck about you. None. Zero. Despite all of the mission statements, and the vision boards, the nauseating amount of material about how their “people matter” If you died, they would send an email of condolences and then post an ad for your replacement. They would pay you less money if they could.
As much as our culture currently rails against objectification, this is exactly what the function of the workplace is. You are an object to produce surplus value for the company/shareholders/etc. Anything else is pure delusion. What I am saying is that we need to act accordingly. You are so much more than your fucking job. From the above Atlantic article;
“The case against objectifying others is fairly straightforward. Less obvious but equally damaging is when the objectifier and the person being objectified are one and the same. Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways—by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example—but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing one’s own humanity to a single characteristic, and thus encouraging others to do so as well. In the case of work, that might look like judging one’s self-worth—positively or negatively—based on job performance or professional standing.
Just as our entertainment culture encourages us to self-objectify physically, our work culture pushes us to self-objectify professionally. Americans tend to valorize being driven and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is concerningly easy. I know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work; who are saying, essentially, “I am my job.” This may feel more humanizing and empowering than saying “I am my boss’s tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: In theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job. You can’t ditch you.”
One way relationships seldom end well. In the case of getting laid off or fired supreme bitterness sets in amidst the scramble. This is a horrendous feeling, you gave everything to this company, and one day it all unexpectedly came crashing down. This is the thing, it doesn’t have to. This process can feel akin to a liberation if prepared for. Countless pundits have acted dumbfounded by the so called “great resignation” seemingly confused and enraged why people under 40 would leave their jobs. Some of us have noticed the blatant hypocrisy and been on this same trek a time or two. Toxic work cultures and shit-tastic compensation models seem to be the business’s hardest hit. Where is the great mystery?
What is the point here? why am I wiring this on an overcast Monday afternoon? I’m certainly not writing this from the “office”. The point is you have agency. You want stability, security, you want not to grind your teeth to dust at night? No one gives that to you. YOU HAVE TO BUILD IT. The beauty is, once you build your own, its like developing your own organic super power. Reclaim your voice, and stop letting things happen to you, and instead make them happen for you.
“Tens of thousands of people, most of them less capable than you, leave their jobs every day. It’s neither uncommon nor fatal. Here are a few exercises to help you realize just how natural job changes are and how simple the transition can be. 1. First, a familiar reality check: Are you more likely to find what you want in your current job or somewhere else? 2. If you were fired from your job today, what would you do to get things under financial control? 3. Take a sick day and post your resume on the major job sites. Even if you have no immediate plans to leave your job, post your resume on sites such as www.monster.com and www.indeed.com, using a pseudonym if you prefer. This will show you that there are options besides your current place of work. Call headhunters if your level makes such a step appropriate, and send a brief e-mail such as the one below to friends and non-work contacts. “Dear All, I am considering making a career move and am interested in all opportunities that might come to mind. Nothing is too outrageous or out of left field. [If you know what you want or don’t want on some level, feel free to add, “I am particularly interested in …” or “I would like to avoid …”] Please let me know if anything comes to mind! -You Call in sick or take a vacation day to complete all of these exercises during a normal 9–5 workday. This will simulate unemployment and lessen the fear factor of non-office limbo.”
Instead of reading more news on the recession or interest rate hikes or other things outside of your direct control, really narrow in on #2 above. Make a plan. Build a figurative financial “bomb shelter”. Be as prepared as possible to move on in the direction that you want and or need. Remember you are not alone.
Have you been fired? Have you left a job? What strategies helped you get through it? Are you in a better place now? Would you do anything differently? Please tell us about it in the comments.
Below is rather pertinent today. I have felt a distinct decline for my beloved profession for quite some time. A kind of impending dread. there is something liberating about acknowledging that something is over, that the rot is systemic, and that one must move on. We cling to the delusions as long as we can, but in the end, reality prevails. Please find the link to the original at the end of the piece. Thank you Joshua Dolezal.
Academe is suffering from foreign occupiers
Lessons from Václav Havel for a profession in decline
“A famous saying goes something like this: If you are not a communist before the age of 20, you have no heart. If you are a communist after the age of 30, you have no head. The line has been falsely attributed to Winston Churchill and many other world leaders, often with “liberal” or “socialist” subbing in for “communist.” The upshot is that age transforms idealism into practical sensibility.
Many of us don’t fit that mold. Just three years shy of 50, I am traveling in Prague, feeling quite at home in a city of dreamers, and drinking deeply at the well of Václav Havel, one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved leaders.
Havel died more than ten years ago, but his legacy of unapologetic idealism continues to influence Czech identity, as the tribute to him in Prague shows. The thought experiment I indulge today risks a narrow view of Havel’s oeuvre. But taking risks was one thing he did best, and so I will forge ahead in that spirit.
In an interview first published in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution restored freedom to the Czech Republic, Havel claims that capitalism and communism equally strip people of their humanity by prioritizing the needs of the corporation or the state. I am convinced that if he could see the way that colleges and universities increasingly function like corporations and sometimes like countries troubled by communist occupiers, Havel would say much the same about higher education today.
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1. It all turns on love
Havel’s core conviction is that human beings should not be forced to accommodate themselves to economic systems, but that social and economic systems should be tailored to human needs and relationships: “Man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not…be made to measure for those structures.”
An economy that is thoroughly nationalized or centralized, Havel believes, is toxic to relationships.
“Having lost his personal relationship to his work, his company, to the many decisions about the substance and the purpose of his work and its consequences, he loses interest in the work itself…. Everything falls into the enormous pit of impersonal, anonymous, automatic economic functioning, from work done by the least hired hand right up to decisions made by the bureaucrats in the office of central planning.”
It would be entirely consistent with Havel’s message to say that faculty, staff, and students should be the measure of all university structures. The people who define an intellectual community should never be made to measure for a curriculum, a governance system, or an organizational structure.
Yet higher ed flips these priorities – sometimes with the misguided aim of being student-centered, but more often because the institutional brand becomes the imperative that subordinates all human needs to its own. The brand becomes the centralizing principle in the university.
Students want degrees and jobs, but first they want relationships with one another and with passionate teachers. Alumni do not donate money to a school purely to honor a transactional exchange: you got me this high-paying job, and so I’m paying it back. Loyalty flows from nostalgia for places where we knew we were loved. I can think of nothing more destructive to the financial health of an institution than attacking the sources of this love.
One example from my former institution was a new structure for the Matriculation Convocation, when all first-year students gathered in an auditorium for a welcome ceremony that was meant to anticipate their commencement four years later. When I joined the faculty in 2005, the keynote speaker for this convocation was a professor who had won a teaching award the previous spring. That sent a message: faculty matter here. But after the college did some branding work and developed slogans that we were all encouraged to reinforce in our conversations with students, like a party platform, the Matriculation event featured a top-down lineup of President, Vice President, and a newly created administrator called a Class Dean. The professors were to sit quietly in the background in full regalia lending an aura of prestige while three administrators spoke directly to the first-year class.
Some of us entertained ourselves by playing “slogan bingo,” listening for those catch phrases the consultants had crafted that were meant to convey the sense that we were a unified and welcoming community. But what we really cared about were those students looking back at us, who wanted us to be their friends and their guides, and who we saw as our raison d’être.
The sad truth? The brand tries to commodify love. But nobody actually loves the brand.
2. The brand hates experts
The heart of a college or university used to be its faculty. These were the musicians, scientists, and scholars who defined their cities and towns in the way that Michael Jordan once was Chicago. Even in the little hamlet where I worked this used to be true. For many years it was the professor, not the president, who was the face of the college to the community.
I do not mean to suggest that there ever was a golden age in higher education, merely that there were periods when academe functioned much more like Havel’s notion of a humane economy:
“The most important thing today is for economic units to maintain – or, rather, renew – their relationship with individuals, so that the work those people perform has human substance and meaning, so that people can see into how the enterprise they work for works, have a say in that, and assume responsibility for it. Such enterprises must have … human dimension; people must be able to work in them as people, as beings with a soul and a sense of responsibility, not as robots, regardless of how primitive or highly intelligent they may be.”
Now, the foremost imperative is the brand, often associated with revenue generating programs like athletics, proven majors, and new programs that show the institution’s response to market needs.
In this system, faculty expertise is valuable only insofar as it burnishes the brand with a patina of prestige. As the documentary film Operation Varsity Blues explains in its exposé of the college admissions fraud scandal, the word prestige derives from the French term for “conjuring trick” and the Latin praestigium, which means “illusion.”
It does not matter what faculty expertise is, precisely, only that it seems “good” or “elite,” depending on how the institution sees itself. While it is possible that a college might successfully recruit students and balance its budget in this way, doing so estranges faculty from the enterprise they work for, deprives them of a say in it, and strips away their sense of responsibility for it.
I’ll offer another athletic analogy. Pittsburgh Pirates fans the world over know that their owner, Robert Nutting, sees the team solely as a way of enriching his family. He invests only as much in payroll for on-field talent as the team earns in concessions, ticket sales, and parking. This is an absurdly low amount ($55-75 million-ish, depending on the year). He keeps the lion’s share of the profits from television and other sources ($200+ million). I can’t imagine any player ever wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, because their employer clearly does not value their talent for its own sake or care about them as people. If they succeed, they will see no reward, even if their achievement increases the value of the Pirate brand to its owner’s benefit. Few colleges or universities can skim millions of dollars in profit off the backs of their faculty, but many academics feel like Pirate ballplayers: passionate about their craft, devoted to their students (or fans), but scorned by those in charge of the money.
A professor has typically completed six years of graduate school and sacrificed more lucrative professional prospects to become an expert in their field. Participating meaningfully in a university community means being seen as a scholar, valued for that specific expertise, and promoted for those unique credentials by the institution. If the things that matter to a scholar with a high command of her craft hold little influence over the enterprise paying her salary, she naturally feels an ebbing responsibility to that enterprise.
If this seems petty, consider the rising rates of suicide among faculty: what one scholar calls “an invisible crisis.” Three sources from my research on faculty departures from academe have told me that they suffered stress-induced heart attacks that they believe were triggered by feelings of invisibility or futility at their institutions. One former professor told me that his wife gave him an ultimatum — their marriage or his job — because she was sure the job would kill him inside of a year. These are high-performing professionals who embrace challenges. It’s not the workload that’s killing them, it’s the waning sense of purpose. The feeling that they simply do not matter within their own enterprise.
I recall a meeting at my college years ago that was billed as strategic planning for the arts. A consultant had been hired to help with that, and he tipped his hand at one point by rhapsodizing about how the arts create a feeling of “us-ness.” A colleague of mine, a poet, recognized that the real purpose of the meeting was to appropriate art for a budget purpose: student retention. “I thought we were going to talk about the arts,” he said. I’m not sure I had ever seen him angry before that day.
3. Budgets should serve human beings. Human beings do not exist to serve budgets.
The brand supposedly attracts students, who pay tuition, which balances budgets. Because the brand creates a corporate identity, budget managers occupy positions with the most compensation and status. It is not lost on faculty that the next level of advancement beyond the rank of full Professor is typically a deanlet position that can build the resume necessary for further advancement into what some of us call the administrati.
Havel would say that this is a structural problem, because most incentives lead away from teaching, research, and service, the relationship-driven work that ought to lie at the heart of what a college or university is. When excellence in teaching is not affirmed or incentivized in the way that excellence in budget management is, teachers feel another painful blow to their sense of responsibility for the enterprise.
The structure for advancement in academe mimics corporate models. But the main difference in how academe actually functions is that healthy corporations have structures for sharing budget management. The scarcity of resources in academe, increasing opaqueness about how those resources are allocated, and the gradual removal of faculty oversight over budgets is much more like a communistic state than a corporation.
When I began directing a first-year seminar near the beginning of my tenure, I enjoyed nearly complete autonomy over how that generous budget was spent: on visiting speakers, on a workshop for faculty teaching the course for the first time, and on other events that enriched the program. Some years later, during a second term as director, I logged on to my computer one morning to discover that I no longer had access to the budget at all. The funds had been removed without any warning and pooled with a pot of other dwindling monies that was now overseen by an associate dean. There were no dollar amounts that I could count on for anything. Every expenditure required a separate appeal to the associate dean, who had to clear it with his superior (the actual dean), which became a form of abasement that any self-respecting expert ought to abhor.
Faculty know better than most how to live frugally. They lived in poverty for years to complete their degrees. They can be trusted to understand limits on resources, and they will do wonders with those resources if allowed to function as collaborative equals rather than as underlings grubbing for a favor from their superiors in The Party.
An occupied homeland
Academics have a lot in common with Czechs. Neither group aspires to build empires. Each is proud of its heritage but has no interest in colonizing others. When either group is deprived of its freedom or pressed into a general mediocrity by an occupying force, it prefers nonviolent resistance and persuasion.
Some can only face the future as emigrés once their homeland has been seized. Others persist and adapt as best they can. But academics and Czechs do not stop thinking of themselves as countrymen whether they stay or go.
As an emigré from higher education, I have sometimes convinced myself that the academic part of me was the problem. The part that made me different from other people. The part that still believes in the arts and humanities as more than auxiliaries to capitalism. The part of me that needs to play music, write essays, study history, and talk about books for more than 20 seconds to feel truly alive.
While reading Václav Havel and feeling the resonance between his vision for national liberty and my own view of what a healthy college ought to be, I have returned to the conviction that academe is one of my homelands. Many of my kinfolk still live there. The occupying government takes many shapes: accreditation, assessment, consulting, and marketing. The occupiers insist that we align ourselves with their priorities and thus have displaced many of us from anchors of culture, language, and heritage.
The occupying force insists on investing more resources in what has already not been working, such as the absurd new position at the University of California-Irvine: the pedagogical wellness specialist. Instead of paying teachers more, listening to them about what is making their life miserable, and giving them real influence over their own enterprise, UC-Irvine is paying someone with less experience in academe to try to convince academic professionals that they are the ones who need healing, not the system that they are being forced to accommodate. This Emperor truly has no clothes.
One of my sources for The Chronicle of Higher Education described a nightmare scenario at her institution where faculty and staff were gathered into one enormous Zoom call, informed that there would be layoffs, and then asked to stay at their computers to await further news. The layoffs then happened throughout the day in smaller Zoom meetings. Everyone was asked to return to the giant Zoom message at the end of the day to say a prayer for those who were leaving “the family.” Brotherhood and comradeship feature prominently in Communist propaganda, but few oppressors pretend to be brothers or sisters to those they are casting into exile. The cruelty of this can scarcely be overstated.
Those of us who have left academe might come back, like Czechs flooding home after the Soviets left in 1989, if the occupiers could be overthrown. But even if we don’t, we can never stop thinking of the campus and the classroom as our native places. Like the Czechs, our anthem begins with the words “Where is my home?” We know where it is.
All of this might sound like a coda to John Lennon’s “Imagine” if it were not clear that higher education is losing the public trust. People don’t think college is necessarily worth the cost any longer. Many think that college simply helps rig the economy for the rich. And I am but a drop in the sea of faculty who are voluntarily relinquishing hard-earned benefits, such as lifelong tenure, free tuition for their children, and a flexible summer schedule because we believe the unknown is preferable to an iron lid on the horizon.
Freedom came to the Czech Republic. Czechs took back what was rightfully theirs. It is not preposterous to think it could happen in academe.
Havel believed that “a genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in ‘systems’ [could not] happen without a significant shift in human consciousness.” He said that it was not possible to enact meaningful change “through a simple organizational trick.” Consultants and new logos and carefully honed messages will not shore up the enterprise of higher education if people are falling out of love with their work and feeling cut off from relationships that sustain them. Bolstering the brand while subordinating people to its uniform imperatives will always outrage the human need for dignity, freedom, and belonging. “
“You have an awesome job — you know that, right? I’m jealous.” Those words were uttered by a tenured professor over coffee one day, as I told him about my then-job working in theater as a literary manager and dramaturge.
Had I heard him correctly? He was the one with the swanky permanent teaching job while I couldn’t find a tenure-track gig in literature to save my life.
But despite all the romantic notions attached to “the life of the mind,” that wasn’t the first time (or the last) that I heard a tenured scholar admit to feeling envious of a career outside of academe. They always say they feel beaten down by the academic system — more specifically, by heavy teaching loads, politicized faculty meetings, and ever-expanding campus bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, drawing on my knowledge of theater, I had become the literary manager of a major U.S. regional theater — developing new works, providing research for plays, scouting new playwrights, and writing articles for the theater’s magazine that were read by hundreds of people every performance. While it wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing with a Ph.D., the theater had become my classroom, where I ran public interviews with award-winning writers and actors. I grappled with complex thematic issues and found myself in the library collecting dramaturgical research for directors.
I was, in many ways, doing what I had been trained to do. I just wasn’t doing it at a university.
I share this experience now because the contingent-faculty crisis has rightly been taking up more and more column space in an effort to get academe to sit up, take notice, and do something about the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs. Debates about the problem often lead to a lot of finger-pointing and wishful thinking that it could be resolved if only “someone” — institutions, departments, learned societies, foundations — could wave a magic wand and make more tenure-track jobs appear. It is a frustratingly complex issue.
While I, too, hope that institutions will find ways to support, retain, and even increase the number of tenure-track positions on their faculties, I’d like to pose a different question here: Why is getting a tenure-track job still seen as the only way to lead a fulfilling life of inquiry in the humanities? More to the point: What do those of us who pursue a doctorate want to do to lead fulfilling lives as scholars?
The answer, I would suggest, is not purely a thing — e.g., a tenure-track job — but rather a set of activities: the ability to teach, write, lecture, and think critically about the world around us. Those actions, while they are primarily located in the realm of higher education, are not by any means restricted to that sector.
I found that out myself more than 10 years ago when — after five years on the faculty job market, and despite having done all the “right” things such as getting a postdoc, publishing a book and articles, and teaching — I was still without a tenure-track position. Not looking to live just anywhere and also not interested in patching together a subsistence living of underpaying adjunct jobs, I decided to pivot and look for work outside of academe. The results have been exciting, rewarding, and eye-opening.
My first job, described above, led me to work in theater, applying much that I had learned to an art form I love. Instead of reading and writing about contemporary American drama in the abstract, I was actually in the room helping to create it. It was often a heady experience, to be sure. From there I served as director of arts and culture for a Jewish community center, applying my background in Jewish cultural texts to public programming for hundreds of people each year. Then a stint in community grantmaking. And now, coming full circle, I am executive director of an academic learned society that serves its members not just by advocating for their scholarship, but by helping them along their career paths in whatever varied forms that might take.
As I look back at my own unexpected career path, though, I never abandoned the activities of teaching, research, writing, and thinking critically. While academe is a place where ostensibly all of those actions coalesce, it’s not the only place where they exist. With some creativity and flexibility, each element can be interwoven with a life outside of a college campus.
At multiple jobs, I was able to negotiate, as part of my hiring package, regular time off to teach a course on a college campus. I don’t want to glorify the adjunct system, as it is definitely broken and pays far too little for the amount of work involved. However, in certain circumstances, adjuncting can be a way for Ph.D.s working outside of the ivory tower to maintain an active role as scholars and teachers. Adjunct teaching is not glamorous, but when it’s not your main source of income, it can be gratifying work. Freed from departmental politics, I was able to swoop in, teach, and leave — and I liked that. I not only got to continue honing my teaching skills and be with students in a classroom, but I also had the opportunity to develop new courses that often turned into public lecture topics.
Research and writing attract many people to academic life, but it’s possible to do that kind of work in other sectors, too.
In fact, my own writing and publishing has flourished since leaving academe. I’ve published two books, both with academic presses. The second, which was a trade crossover book about musical theater, sold out its first print run and will be republished this year in a revised second edition. This book was a joy to work on because I was able to write it for myself — not to please a tenure committee or a small group of academics. In writing it, I was able to combine a scholarly approach with a desire to share my work with a wider reading public.
It’s true that carving out time to write and do research when you have a full-time job is difficult, but it is doable. And in fairness, many faculty members with heavy teaching loads these days are equally struggling to find time to write.
The one area of research that remains problematic once you leave the academic world is using campus libraries, complete with checkout privileges and access to online databases. If institutions could find ways of supporting research access for independent scholars, this would be a tremendous boon both for them and for institutions, which, ostensibly, are invested in the production of new bodies of knowledge and scholarly output.
My work as a graduate student trained me to think critically, and while I may spend more time nowadays thinking about spreadsheets than similes, it doesn’t mean the work I do now is less gratifying. As a Ph.D. outside of academe, I still spend a great deal of time lecturing and giving public talks. Through this work, I’ve not only found attentive, engaged audiences (often more so than in an intro class), but I’m excited to share my academic knowledge with the wider public in ways that are deep and meaningful.
I know that a tenure-track job will remain the holy grail for many Ph.D.s, but with creative recalibration, you can find multiple, rewarding ways to be “an academic.” When people ask me if I still would have gone to graduate school knowing that I wouldn’t find an academic job, my answer remains a solid yes. While I might not need a doctorate for some of the jobs I’ve had, the training I received helped shape the way I view and interact with the world, and that’s something I value deeply.
Today, as the executive director of an academic learned society, I see a twofold challenge before us:
We must advocate for tenure-track jobs and the shore up of academic employment.
At the same time, we must validate and celebrate the vast variety of career options available outside of academe that draw on the important skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that many of us have spent years cultivating.
Warren Hoffman is executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies.
Mixing a bit of personal finance and education today. This is something that was talked about a few years ago, but is now making news. Student loan debt in the USA now sits at a staggering 1.5 trillion (and growing) dollars. This debt has outpaced credit card debt, and other consumer debt to become the largest debt held by Americans outside of their mortgages.
What do you think? Is this attacking the symptom over the disease? Is this something that might catch on? Comments welcome!
Jessica Crowley used to dwell on an unpleasant thought. When her children began college, she’d still be repaying her own student loans.
But a few months ago, the company where she works announced a new benefit: student loan assistance.
Now, New York Air Brake, which makes train control systems, pays Crowley $166 a month toward her student loan balance, which means she’ll be debt-free sooner than she thought.
“It’s going to shorten my loan life by a couple of years,” Crowley, 30, said. “It’s going to be a big difference.”
Source: Jessica Crowley
Jessica Crowley, who receives student loan assistance from her employer New York Air Brake.
Student loan assistance, which started as a niche offering by a handful of companies, is finding its way into the mainstream menu of workplace benefits.
“This is certainly emerging as a new and very important benefit,” said David Pratt, a professor at Albany Law School who studies employee benefits.
This year, Fidelity began to offer businesses a way to contribute to their workers’ education debt. Since then, more than two dozen companies have signed up, and it expects that number to double by January.
“This is certainly emerging as a new and very important benefit.”-David Pratt, professor, Albany Law School
“This is going to grow rapidly over time,” said Asha Srikantiah, vice president of workplace emerging products at Fidelity. “We’re seeing so many more people who have debt and who are overwhelmed by that.”
Indeed, 7 in 10 college graduates have student loan debt. The average person leaves school $30,000 in arrears, while nearly 20 percent owe more than $100,000. Americans are now more burdened by education loans than they are by credit card or auto debt.
Companies offering assistance grows
Helping employees with their education debt is a great way to attract new talent, said John Samaan, senior vice president and head of human resources at Millennium Trust Company.
The financial services firm began offering its employees student loan assistance a few months ago. Now, 20 percent of the company’s 300 employees are already enrolled, Samaan said.
“We got a lot more inquiries from potential candidates,” Samaan said. “People want to join us to be able to participate in this program.”
Options Clearing Corp., a large clearinghouse for equity derivatives, also started providing its employees student loan contributions this year. More than 70 employees signed up within the first month, said Erin Smith, first vice president of total rewards at the company.
She said student loan assistance is the number one benefit being talked about at job and recruiting fairs.
“Most companies provide a pretty standard benefit menu, like medicine, dental and vision, so when you introduce a program that differentiates you, that really matters,” Smith said.
“It’s as meaningful to recent graduates as 401(k)s.”-Meera Oliva, chief marketing officer at Gradifi
More than 350 companies are administering education debt benefits to their employees through Gradifi, a Boston-based firm that designs student loan repayment programs for companies.
“It’s as meaningful to recent graduates as 401(k)s,” said Meera Oliva, chief marketing officer at Gradifi.
It’s not enough, critics say
To be sure, there’s some skepticism about how much the private sector can remedy a $1.5 trillion — and growing — outstanding student loan debt balance.
“The problem is we’re treating the symptom of a disease — and the disease is that education is more expensive in this country than anywhere else in the world,” said Pratt, the Albany Law School professor.
Student debt could hold back economic growth, Fed chief says
The country needs a more universal solution, like bringing down the cost of tuition, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University.
“It doesn’t work if it’s provided via employers, because it’s always going to be a small amount that offer it,” Bronfenbrenner said. “And they’re going to provide this, but then take away that.”
Indeed, the number of companies supplying the benefit remains relatively small — around 4 percent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
And one of the factors likely contributing to the nation’s swelling student loan debt is that the number of employers helping their workers with their original education costs is shrinking.
Company contributions to undergraduate education expenses dropped to 53 percent in 2017, from 61 percent in 2013, accordingto the Society for Human Resource Management.
During that period, graduate school assistance at work also fell, to 50 percent from about 60 percent.
“The problem is we’re treating the symptom of a disease — and the disease is that education is more expensive in this country than anywhere else in the world.”-David Pratt, Albany Law School professor
Still, the benefit can make a big difference for the employees who do receive it.
For example, if someone has a student loan balance of $26,500 on a 10-year repayment term with a 4 percent interest rate, a $100 a month contribution from his or her employer would free them from their debt three years earlier.
It can also help employees better take advantage of other workplace benefits.
Ed Farrington, head of retirement strategies at Natixis Investment Managers, said the company realized after annual surveys of 401(k) plan participants that student loan debt was hindering millennials’ ability to save for retirement.
“We thought, what can we do to try eliminate one of those barriers?” Farrington said. “And we said we want to start helping people who are carrying student loan debt.”
Source: Maggie McCuen
Maggie McCuen, who works at Natixis and uses the student loan assistance program.
It seems to be working for Maggie McCuen, 26, public relations manager at Natixis, who’s been receiving the assistance at work for around two years now.
“The money that I would have been spending on the student loan I’ve been reallocating to my 401(k),” McCuen said. “I think I’ve put away at least four times as much.”
Abbott, an Illinois-based health care company, recently announcedthat it will contribute to employees’ 401(k) plans if they’re putting at least 2 percent of their salary toward their education debt.
Will loan assistance become as big as 401(k)s?
There’s still an unfortunate tax hurdle that will likely stall the growth of a student loan assistance benefit, experts say.
Companies recieve no particular tax incentive for such contributions while employees must report their payments as income to the IRS.
However, a number of recent bills seek to make this assistance tax-free, up to a certain amount. Companies including Starbucks and Verizon have expressed support for such a measure.
“Congress needs to take the next step and make this benefit tax free,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingforCollege.com and a student loan expert. “Most people don’t remember that 401(k) plans started in exactly the same way about 35 to 40 years ago.”
This piece appeared in Jacobin roughly this time last year. Being a student of pedagogy and learning strategies…as well as a lecturer, I found that I spent quite a bit of time going over this.
What do you think?
Few have savaged lecturers as brutally as the the Enlightenment-era printmaker William Hogarth. In Scholars at a Lecture, the presenter reads from his prepared text, his eyes down, indifferent to his audience. The budding academics are no more impressive; those in thrall to the lecturer’s nonsense have slack faces with lolling eyes and open mouths. The others don’t offer any critique but yawn, doze, or chat idly among themselves.
In The Reward of Cruelty, the lecturer, who cannot be bothered to rise from his chair, pokes lackadaisically at Tom Nero, a criminal whose body has been turned over for dissection. The audience shows little interest. Hogarth’s most damning image of a lecturer, however, depicts one who does inspire his audience, but to dubious ends. In Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, a minister thunders on about witches and devils as parishioners swoon with terror. The minister’s text quotes II Corinthians: “I speak as a fool.”
Hogarth’s satirical prints repeat a common belief about lectures: Those who claim the lectern are dullards or charlatans who do so only to gratify and enrich themselves. The louder they speak, the more we should suspect them. True knowledge, he implies, does not come from speechifying blowhards and self-satisfied experts, but from practical observation of the world.
This distrust has now spread to the lecturer’s natural habitat, the university. Administrators and instructors alike have declared lecturing a stale teaching method and begun advocating new so-called content delivery techniques, from lab- and project-based learning to flipped classrooms and online instruction, that “disrupt” the sage-on-the-stage model. While these new methods work well, we should not completely abandon the lecture. It remains a powerful tool for teaching, communicating, and community building.
Detractors claim that lectures’ hierarchical, inflexible, and unidirectional structure doesn’t suit our dynamic, crowd-sourced world. To be sure, lectures are top-down affairs that occur at fixed times. But these aspects are assets, not weaknesses: they benefit both students and instructors.
Lectures are not designed to transmit knowledge directly from the lecturers’ lips to students’ brains — this idea is a false one, exacerbated by the problematic phrase “content delivery.” Although lecturers (hopefully) possess information that, at the beginning of a lecture, their students do not, they are not merely delivering content. Rather, giving a lecture forces instructors to communicate their knowledge through argument in real time.
The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.
The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.
One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolationduring the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.
Further, dismissing the value of attending lectures only encourages students to skip weeks of classes and then frantically try to catch up later, a destructive cycle that compounds loneliness with anxiety. Students not only fall behind but also miss opportunities to speak with their peers and instructors.
Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress.
Audiences outside academia clearly understand the benefits of collective listening. If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.
The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.
Critics frequently complain that lectures’ fixity makes it difficult for students to work. We should throw this argument back at those who make it: the need for students to work makes it hard for them to attend lectures. Work, not learning, is the burden that should be eradicated. Education is not an errand to be wedged between Uber shifts; it represents a long-term commitment that requires support from society at large. This support is thinning; eroding the legitimacy of lecturing makes it thinner still.
Neoliberalism has also made it hard to recognize the work students perform in lectures. Many critics dismiss lecture attendance as “passive learning,” arguing that students in lectures are aren’t doing anything. Today, declaring something passive completely delegitimizes it. Eve Chiapello and Norman Fairclough argue that activity for its own sake has become essential to personal success: “What is relevant is to be always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project.” Indeed, in our constant scramble to project adaptable employability, we must always seem harried, even if our flailing about isn’t directed toward anything concrete. Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look busy, and so their activity gets maligned as passive, unproductive, and, consequently, irrelevant.
But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen.Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.
No matter how fast-paced the world becomes, listening will remain essential to public dialogue and debate. As Professor Monessa Cummins, department chair of classics at Grinnell College states:
Can [students] listen to a political candidate with a critical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.
Discussion sections after lectures always reveal the expert listeners. They ask the best questions, the ones that cut straight to the speaker’s main themes with an urgency that electrifies the whole audience, producing a flurry of excited responses and follow-up questions. Good listening grounds all dialogue, expands our body of knowledge, and builds community.
Although they probably haven’t thought about in these terms, many of the lecture’s critics would probably favor one side of Aristotle’s scheme of knowledge, which separates theory from practice. Historian Pamela H. Smith succinctly describes the difference: theory (episteme, scientia) describes knowledge based on logical syllogism and geometrical demonstration. Practice (praxis, experientia) encompasses things done — like politics, ethics, and economics — or things made — technē, which require bodily labor.
Before the modern era, technē was widely denigrated. Smith writes, “Technē . . . was the lowly knowledge of how to make things or produce effects, practiced by animals, slaves, and craftspeople. It was the only area of knowledge that was productive.” Today of course, the tables are turned; technē’s productive quality elevates it above supposedly impractical theory. Indeed, under capitalism, anything that doesn’t immediately appear as productive, even if only in the most superficial way, is dismissed as a waste of time.
Good lectures build knowledge and community; they also model critical civic participation. But students have suffered a wide variety of bad lecturers: the preening windbag, the verbatim Powerpoint reader, the poor timekeeper who never manages to cover all the session’s material. Lecturing does not come naturally and can take years to master, yet very few instructors have the opportunity to learn how to deliver a good lecture. Given the outsize emphasis many universities place on publication and grants — not to mention the excessive workloads, low pay, and job insecurity the majority of instructors face — lecturers have little incentive to invest the time and effort it takes to gain these skills.
Meanwhile, active learning partisans sometimes overlook the skill it takes to conduct their preferred methods effectively. Becoming a good lab instructor, project facilitator, or discussion leader also takes time and practice. In addition to bad lectures, I’ve sat through plenty of bewildering labs and meandering seminars. Because these teaching methods have the guise of activity, however, their occasional failures are not dismissed as easily as those of the supposedly passive lecture.
Lecturing is increasingly impugned as an inactive and hierarchical pedagogical method. The type of labor demanded in the lecture hall — and the type of community it builds — still matters. Under an economic system that works to accelerate and divide us, institutions that carve out time and space to facilitate collectivity and reflection are needed more than ever.
On the picket line I’ve seen how much widespread support there is, by those fighting against broader attacks on education
Iam a lecturer, currently on strike. I am also a part-time MA student, whose lecturers are on strike. And I am the mother of a student whose lecturers are on strike. There have been attempts by many vice-chancellors to pit students and their parents against striking staff, often by positioning staff as selfish and greedy, and students as the consumers whose livelihoods they harm. But even though I dread the hole in my next pay packet, and know exactly what it is like to see classes disappear when I have an essay to write, and though I feel for my daughter, who worries about the impact this will have on her degree – and therefore her future – for me there has been no moment of doubt, no internal war.
This unity of purpose is mirrored on the picket lines, where the active support of students has made even the coldest days feel like high summer. They arrive at 8am daily to brew us “solidari-tea”, they make banners, art and music, they occupy buildings, and march alongside us, even in heavy snow. And the support is broad: a YouGov poll conducted on the eve of the strike showed that 61% of students supported it, and only 2% blamed the strikers for the disruption to their studies.
The issue that has led to this dispute is pensions, and yet large numbers of casualised staff are on the picket line too – part of a growing cohort of young academics for whom the only jobs on offer are paid hourly, and meagrely, with no security and very little opportunity to do research. Viewed from the precarious position of many staff and most students, pensions of any sort must seem like an impossible dream. So why do the majority of them support us?
Partly, because they can see the injustice. Often presented as if a gift, like some fat cat’s golden handshake, pensions are in fact part of our pay. People who choose to teach in universities do so because they believe that teaching and research are a public good, and worth doing in return for modest pay and a decent pension. So when the vice-chancellors, represented by Universities UK (UUK), announced their intention to switch from a “defined benefit” scheme to a “defined contribution” scheme, the betrayal was keenly felt.
Under the “defined contribution” (aka “die quickly”) scheme, the typical lecturer would lose about £10,000 a year in retirement. It is a deeply cynical move by people with vested interests, which if successful, would mark the end of higher education as a public service.
Why are university staff striking?
The fact that the majority of vice-chancellors involved have now publicly distanced themselves from UUK’s position, including Oxford, Cambridge, and others who appeared implacably hostile to the strikers’ demands only days ago, is a sign of the weakness of their argument, as well as the strength of the strike. Many universities have expresseddismay at how their own contribution to UUK’s “consultation” was presented. UUK also claimed that defined benefits have become prohibitively expensive – a claim that turned out to rest on an implausible scenario in which every university went bust tomorrow, and which has been challenged even by the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, universities enjoy record surpluses, vice-chancellors are being given obscene salaries and lavish expenses, and cash is poured into trophy buildings to make the “brand” easier to “sell”. And all while junior staff struggle to pay their rent, and students in huge debt sit in overcrowded seminars.
But, like most strikes, this one is about much more than money. My favourite banner on the picket line reads “Against the slow cancellation of the future”, a phrase popularised by the late cultural theorist, Mark Fisher. In the grip of neoliberalism, we begin to believe that there is no alternative, Fisher told us.
In universities, this slow draining of hope began with the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, and gathered pace when they were tripled in 2010. Successive governments, enthusiastically aided by overpaid senior management drawn from outside the university sector, have turned higher education into a utilitarian and consumer-driven activity that students buy in exchange for skills for the job market. The raid on pensions fits this pattern – it is an attempt to shift the risk of volatility in the market from the employer to the individual, to pave the way for further privatisation and rid universities of any remaining sense of responsibility for the long-term health and dignity of their workforces.
The real reason for the widespread support for the strike is that these broader attacks on education as a public service affect the entire academic community – the full-time staff, the casualised staff, and, of course, the students.
The problems we face – debt, increasing workloads, precarity, mental health issues – are not only shared, but systemic. Students understand that staff working conditions are their learning conditions; staff understand that students’ financial stress is an assault on their freedom to learn. On the picket lines, the conversation has not been about pensions, but how we can democratise universities, and restore them to their real purpose. Every member of the academic community knows education is potentially life-enhancing, liberating, world-changing. That is something worth fighting for.
• Becky Gardiner is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and former comment editor of the Guardian
All the way from Bloomberg news. It’s been a shit time for educators across the spectrum. The breaking point may be near. High time for some much needed militancy.
Could Wildcat Teachers’ Strikes Spread to Other States?
Oklahoma and Kentucky may follow West Virginia as educators across the country take advantage of a strong economy to agitate for more pay.
By Josh Eidelson
March 6, 2018, 6:15 PM GMT+1
Updated on March 6, 2018, 11:44 PM GMT+1
The fury among low-paid teachers that triggered a wildcat teachers’ strike in West Virginia—the longest in its history—may be spreading.
Teachers across the country may soon build on the state’s example. The Oklahoma teachers’ union said it will shut down schools within months if its demands aren’t met, and some teachers said they may strike even if a deal is reached.
“The end goal is funding for public education and our core services, and if it takes us closing down schools to do that, then we are prepared and willing to do so,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. On Thursday, the OEA will announce a timetable that could culminate in a school shutdown if lawmakers don’t pass teacher raises, something the legislature hasn’t done in a decade. While some teachers may have been on the fence, said Priest, the two-week West Virginia strike “has given them an emboldened sense of purpose and a sense of power.”
That may not be enough for the rank and file. Some Oklahoma teachers are planning a wildcat strike of their own. Leaders from a dozen schools met last week to discuss such an unsanctioned walkout, and they plan to reconvene Wednesday to vote on a strike date. If the union’s plans aren’t to their liking, they may walk out, said Larry Cagle, who teaches advanced placement courses and is one of the organizers behind the independent effort. “We’re going to force this on the union and on the superintendent,” he said. “Teachers are ready—they are chomping at the bit.”
“A lot of people do not trust the promises made by the governor.”
Teachers have complained of low pay and poor treatment by politicians for years, breeding a high level of distrust when it comes to any new promises. In West Virginia, teachers expressed skepticism on Tuesday right up until the legislature voted to approve a pay hike bill and the governor signed it.
Nevertheless, American teachers are benefiting from a tailwind these days thanks to a tightening private-sector labor market, which brings stronger state revenue as well as alternative job opportunities, said Heidi Shierholz, who served as chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration. “The argument that the money just isn’t there, that it’s ‘blood from a stone,’ rings a lot more hollow at a time like this,” said Shierholz, who now directs policy for the Economic Policy Institute.
Hiking teacher pay may be necessary for states to stay competitive when it comes to retaining educators, said Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute. However, states that buckle to pressure from striking teachers could be hurt when the economy goes south, he added.
“If they do make big commitments, then a recession comes, then they get themselves into budget troubles,” said Edwards.
In West Virginia, the strike by thousands of school employees began Feb. 22 with the backing of the schools’ three unions, and then morphed into a rare “wildcat” walkout when teachers rejected an agreement between union leaders and the governor. Teachers said they were concerned the deal didn’t offer a concrete solution to the pressing issue of escalating health insurance premiums, and they lacked faith that the legislature would approve the 5 percent raises agreed to by Governor Jim Justice, a Republican.
“A lot of people do not trust the promises made by the governor,” striking teacher Kristina Gore said Thursday after West Virginia’s Republican-controlled Senate shunted the proposed pay raise to committee. On Saturday night, the Senate voted to approve raises of only 4 percent for the teachers, who have not had an across-the-board increase since 2014.
On Tuesday, legislative leaders and Justice announced the new deal to fund 5 percent raises. The package signed today includes a 16-month freeze on premium increases under the teachers’ health care plan, according to the state’s American Federation of Teachers local. Rather than counting on the additional revenue projected by the governor’s office, Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair said Tuesday morning that the chamber would make “very deep cuts” elsewhere in the budget to compensate for the raises.
“Teacher strikes have tended to breed more teacher strikes.”
Favorable economy notwithstanding, this year is shaping up to be a perilous one for the embattled U.S. labor movement, with the White House and Republican-controlled Congress hostile to unions and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected by summer that may slash their budgets by outlawing mandatory union fees in the public sector. Nevertheless, the West Virginia walkout has provided a beacon of sorts for activists who see it as the stirrings of grassroots organizing and defiance that they say the movement needs to survive. “Everybody I know is excited about this and what it shows is possible,” said former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, who now chairs Our Revolution, the advocacy group of Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrat of Vermont.
If strikes break out in other states such as Kentucky, where teachers are fighting lawmakers over pay and benefits, it wouldn’t be the first time. “Historically, public-sector strikes have tended to come in waves,” said Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin. “Teacher strikes have tended to breed more teacher strikes.” From 1945 to 1950, there were around 60 work stoppages by teachers around the country, many mounted without official union backing or legal protection. At the time, said McCartin, schools were underfunded and classrooms increasingly crowded. Teachers felt left behind amid quickening private sector wage growth in a postwar economy.
Striking school workers inside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, on March 2.Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg
West Virginia’s example has “lit some fires” among teachers in Kentucky, said Jennifer Ward Bolander, a special education teacher there. “It’s definitely a subject of everyday water cooler conversation now,” she said. While she and other teachers are eager to avoid a strike, she said, there have been increasing rumblings about the possibility since West Virginia pulled it off.
Teachers in Oklahoma have now gone without raises for a decade. Average pay there is the lowest in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Jonathan Small, president of the conservative think tank Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said he expects the Republican-controlled legislature to approve a raise for educators. Small said he would support an increase of at least $5,000 a year for each teacher, at a cost of about $246 million, which could be paid for by spending down a surplus while increasing the state’s gross production tax on oil and natural gas.
Many Oklahoma teachers aren’t willing to wait. “People are talking about ‘strike’ now out in the open, and that’s been a change,” said John Waldron, a teacher and a member of the union’s legislative committee. “The groundswell right now is pretty loud.” Union leaders are hearing regularly from members who want to go on strike, and that pressure has helped force the leadership’s hand, said Waldron, a Democratic candidate for the state legislature.
In a statement, Oklahoma state Senator Greg Treat, the Republican majority floor leader, said “teachers deserve a pay raise” and that lawmakers have “repeatedly, in a bipartisan manner, passed revenue plans to fund teacher pay.” He argued that Democrats have obstructed such efforts. Minority Leader Steve Kouplen rejected the claim, blaming Republicans for driving the state into insolvency with tax cuts that don’t allow for a fully funded public sector.
The threat of a wildcat strike in Oklahoma has even split the labor movement there. Priest, the Oklahoma union president, argued that the vast majority of teachers “are on the same page” about strategy, notwithstanding a few groups “that don’t have all of the information.” Before shutting down schools, she said, the union will push for local school board resolutions endorsing school funding hikes and expressing support for teachers in the event of a shutdown. “We have an opportunity to stand together in a unified voice,” she said, “and we need to do so.”
We are now in the midst of a genuine walk out. Best of luck educators throughout West Virginia!
This is a pre-K through college fight and we need to have each other’s backs–adjuncts, Pre-K teachers, K-12, and the post-secondary tenured, together, are a mighty, mighty force in this country. Let’s have some solidarity.
“When Logan County special education teacher Leah Clay Stone entered the West Virginia capitol building on February 2, she saw a sea of teachers from the chamber doors of the Senate and House all the way back to the rotunda. Her county was part of the first work stoppage this month that saw public school teachers flock to the capitol building in Charleston to protest continued low wages, spiking insurance premiums, and poor working conditions.
The teachers flooding the galleries that day came from schools in just three counties. But since February 2 the rebellion has spread. Today marks the second day of a statewide work stoppage, with schools closed in all fifty-five counties. The teachers—who don’t even have legal collective bargaining—wear red T-shirts with the outline of West Virginia and the word UNITED emblazoned across them, a visual that calls to mind not only the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012 but also the Wisconsin capitol occupation in 2011, against Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature’s move to take away collective bargaining rights from the state’s public employees. Now West Virginia public employees are showing that even without collective bargaining rights, they too can make a heck of a lot of noise.
On Thursday morning, thousands of teachers headed to the capitol, carpooling because the walkout included bus drivers. Others stayed close to home to make sure they had a presence in their schools, where they were met with support from students and parents. That support has been building over recent weeks: Ashlea Bassham’s ninth- and tenth-grade students and others had already held their own walkout in Logan County, wielding signs that read “I’m in the bleachers for my teachers.” Parents have held informational pickets and walk-ins, standing outside schools in the cold and the snow to support the teachers. The movement has spread from county to county, neighbor to neighbor, as teachers who live in one county and work in another talk to friends at home and on the job. “It literally was like a fire just catching and going,” says Stone, who is the local vice-president for the Logan County Education Association, one of the two associations in the state.
At the beginning of the legislative session, the executive committee of the association called an emergency meeting to discuss changes to their insurance plan and other bills being introduced in the legislature. The teachers called for a vote to walk out. “I don’t think there was anybody still seated. It was a resounding yes,” Stone said. She then put her production-management background to use pulling together a voting process, getting representatives from every school to collect ballots. “We managed to get ballots into every school and all three bus garages and had them back into my hands and counted in twenty-four hours,” she said. “I literally was creating a ballot as I was walking out the door of the building. I was like ‘somebody else needs to drive, I need to take care of this.’”
The teachers were trying to avoid the district getting an injunction to halt their action, but instead the superintendent closed the schools, a pattern that would repeat itself in every county across the state as teachers stood up to join the statewide day of action. A movement organized by teachers on the ground was able to spread in part through existing networks, in part through social media. “A lot of people blame Facebook for all the bad things in 2016 with the election, but it has actually been really helpful here because West Virginia is so rural and spread out,” said Jay O’Neal, who teaches in Charleston.
Like other teachers who have resorted to stopping work in recent years, the West Virginia teachers have emphasized that their goal is to make education better for every child in West Virginia. “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” has become the byword in these campaigns. The West Virginia teachers have demonstrated this commitment not only with their demands—for filling teacher vacancies, for smaller class sizes—but with immediate action. “As soon as we called the work stoppage for Thursday and Friday our locals took it upon themselves to start working with churches and food banks and different places to provide day care for the parents who needed it, to provide meals for the many students who get their hot meals at school,” said Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA).
The legislature and the board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) have begun to make some noises about conceding some to the teachers’ demands, but nothing is concrete and the work stoppage is set to continue at least through Monday.
The teachers began to notice trouble in January, right at the beginning of the legislative session. In that first session, Bassham noted, there were over thirty bills introduced that seemed ominous. When it comes to salaries, West Virginia teachers are already some of the worst off in the country—forty-eighth, according to Lee—and their health-insurance premiums had increased so much over the last year that it amounted to a pay cut. “I keep seeing this number thrown around—$45K is the average teacher salary. I’ve been teaching for seven years and I am nowhere near that,” Stone said. O’Neal added, “I moved here in 2015 and my second year teaching, I made less than my first.”
That pay cut came from a change to how PEIA insurance was calculated—it shifted from being based on the individual teacher’s income to total family income. That could effectively double the already-high premiums for insurance that used to be seen as a counterbalance to low wages. On top of that, the teachers would be penalized if they did not participate in a wellness program.
Those issues already left teachers feeling undervalued and disrespected. And that came on top of legislators proposing bills that threatened public education—such as introducing charter schools, “education savings accounts” (giving parents public funds to spend on educating their children, or a “backdoor voucher” in Lee’s words), so-called “paycheck protection,” which restricts the ability for automatic deduction of union dues, and other attacks on the already deeply restricted unions. Anger at the anti-union proposals opened the door to bring up other issues that had been frustrating teachers for much longer, like sky-high class sizes in secondary schools and a lack of electives for students.
Despite it all, Lee noted, “We have great schools. We’re right at 90 percent graduation rate, and for a rural state that is exceptional.” To him, legislators’ complaints about spending are disingenuous—the state is paying for past underfunding of retirement benefits and counting those dollars as education spending. Because West Virginia’s population is quite spread out, that also means that transporting students costs more than it would in more densely populated states—more dollars that aren’t going to the classroom but are still necessary to spend.
Meanwhile the state has a shortage of certified teachers because it’s hard to convince people to enter a job when starting salaries for people with advanced degrees are still in the $30–35,000 range. “You’re sold the idea of, hey, go to college, get a degree, get an advanced degree, and then you still really can’t make ends meet,” Bassham said. “Obviously we do it because we like the kids, but I also like to be able to pay my bills and not have $8 to last me six days until payday.”
Leah Clay Stone is a second-generation member of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA)—she and her walked picket lines with her mother during a 1990 teacher strike. Her father was a coal miner through the 1980s. West Virginia is a state with a proud labor history that gets lost in the “Trump Country” profiles. Many of the teachers in today’s fight have personal experiences like Stone’s. It was not lost on anyone I spoke with that the first teachers to stop work were from coal country, from Mingo and Logan Counties, the sites of the great mine wars.
Stone also recalls, as a teenager, going to party with friends on top of the infamous Blair Mountain, the site of what historian Elizabeth Catte, in her new book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, calls “the largest show of armed resistance in the United States since the Civil War—and the most significant labor uprising in the United States.” Immortalized in part in the 1987 movie Matewan and in memorable labor ballads, the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted workers and their allies—like venerable labor agitator Mary Harris “Mother” Jones—against a “private army” that would later be praised by the National Rifle Association (yes, the same one that currently wants to arm teachers against school shooters). It is a stark reminder that West Virginians died to organize the unions that the state’s officials are currently bad-mouthing in the press.
Today’s action is the first statewide walkout of teachers in almost thirty years. “If you look at what teachers and their allies are posting on social media, you can see that they are connecting the upcoming action to the state’s important history of labor uprising, from Blair Mountain to Widen.” Elizabeth Catte told me via email. She pointed to a tweet from Richard Ojeda, a candidate for Congress from the state, who posted a photograph of himself in a red bandanna with the caption, “The term redneck started when WV coal miners tied red bandanas around their necks during the bloody battle of Blair mountain to unionize. Today, our teachers channeled their history. #UnionStrong”
“It’s rather impressive to me that people don’t have the knowledge of what it means to be union proud. Or what it means to be involved in an organization,” Stone, who recalled doing a school project on Mother Jones, said. “For the past few years we’ve struggled to keep membership even in our organization. But in this moment and this movement people have been finding out that they are the movement. If they want something done they have to speak up.”
These days, of course, the labor movement is a shadow of its former self in terms of both militancy and membership. With collective bargaining banned for West Virginia teachers and public-sector workers, unions are voluntary associations—meaning that teachers at any given school might be members of the WVEA or the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV), or neither. Without collective bargaining, the WVEA’s Dale Lee explained, mostly the associations fight to get work issues that unions might bargain over—like duty-free lunches and planning periods—written into state law.
There is a separate association for school service personnel, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, who have also backed the job action—cooks, custodians, maintenance workers, and bus drivers. Beyond that, Bassham told me, they are standing for all public employees who are struggling. “It’s not just a teacher issue, it’s not just a school issue, it’s our state not wanting to take care of the people who are trying to make our state a better place.”
Their message is a reminder that despite pollsters’ tendency to make a college degree the dividing line between “working” and “middle” class, the categories are often not so clear cut. The reality is that college-educated workers too have to fight for decent wages and benefits. That the teachers all cite Blair Mountain’s miners as inspiration is an act of class solidarity and a reminder that the so-called knowledge economy we have been told to prize over manual labor doesn’t come with a guarantee of good pay any more than coal mining did.
West Virginia’s government has long been dominated by coal and other extractive industries. In fact its sitting governor, Jim Justice, is a second-generation coal tycoon and a billionaire who owes his own state millions in back taxes. But Jay O’Neal is heartened that teachers and their supporters—including the mine workers’ union—are now calling for raising taxes on those extractive companies in order to fund education. In a literal sense, the teachers are fighting the same companies that the coal miners were, decades ago.
On Thursday teachers from all three education workers’ associations took to the streets and the capitol halls, dressed in red, bearing handmade signs, some of them wearing those red bandannas. They waved to passing drivers and marched with other unionists. Schools throughout the state remained shuttered Friday, and at an afternoon press conference, union representatives said they were prepared to continue the walkout until the state commits to address their demands: higher pay, fully funded insurance benefits, and rejection of the regressive bills.
Teachers had already driven to the capitol on snow days, on treacherous mountain roads. “Our colleagues in the northern panhandle and the eastern panhandle have to come so much further,” Bassham said. “They drove on some crazy mountain roads to holler at legislators, and it was fabulous.”
Those legislators are slowly beginning to take action, Stone said, though there is also “quite a bit of grandstanding. . . . They want you to think that they’re doing everything they can for you but their voting record doesn’t show that.”
Public-employee strikes in West Virginia, as state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has stated, are illegal. And yet the teachers have gone out anyway, taking the risk because it can’t get much worse for them. With the Janus case looming before the Supreme Court, potentially decimating every public-sector union in the nation, and right-wing governors looking for additional ways to punish unions, the West Virginia teachers’ situation is a bellwether.
These teachers recall that there were no laws protecting the mine workers in the 1920s either. Stone said, “West Virginians have a long background of doing what’s expected until it gets to be too much, and then we make sure we do what’s right, and we really want our legislators to do what’s right instead of what’s expected.”
It’s been a rough couple of decades for the national labor movement. Unions have been subjected to a full blown assault by the GOP, eroded by new work arrangements and all but abandoned by Democrats. Major newspapers no longer employ labor reporters, 28 states have undermined unions with so-called right-to-work laws, the Trump administration has decimated the National Labor Relations Board, and every year brings another grim statistic about how union membership has fallen.
With this set of facts piling up, plenty of people have decided unions are now irrelevant and left the movement for dead. Turns out, though, that West Virginia didn’t get the memo.
Teachers, school service personnel and other public employees in the Mountain State are on the verge of a historic statewide walkout over pay that’s near the worst in the country. Over the past few weeks, these workers have staged local walkouts, flooded town halls, and descended by the thousands on the state capital in Charleston. Today, teachers will walk out of schools in at least three more counties, and on Saturday they’ll rally in a massive protest at the Capitol building in what is expected to be their largest action to date.
With no sign that the Republican-dominated legislature is going to accede to the teachers’ demands for a decent wage, the only avenue left is a coordinated statewide walkout. According to Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union: “Unless things change, we’re headed toward a work action.”
It’s hard to overstate just what a dramatic scene this will be. When thousands of teachers walk out of West Virginia schools, they’ll be bucking a national trend in a big way. Last year was the second lowest year ever recorded for large-scale strikes. In the entire country for the entire year, there were only 7 strikes involving more than 1,000 workers.
If you’re surprised to see a resurgence in progressive radical action coming from West Virginia, then it’s time you toss out your old stereotypes of West Virginians as an endlessly trod-upon people who don’t understand their own self-interest and reflexively back Republicans. You may also want to revisit your history.
West Virginia was a cradle of militant unionism and the site of some of the most storied, important battles between labor and management. In fact, if you’ve ever called someone a “redneck” or been called one yourself, you can trace that proud pejorative back to one of the bloodiest battles between labor and management to occur in our nation’s history. In the Battle of Blair Mountain, miners literally fought against management and government for their right to organize and to earn cash instead of scrip and to shop outside of company stores. In order to easily identify their brothers in arms, the miners wrapped red bandanas around their necks.
You might also be surprised to learn that those rednecks were composed of whites, black migrants from the South and new European immigrants. They spoke different languages, came from different cultures, but their red bandanas stood as a sign of cross-racial, working-class solidarity.
In other words, West Virginia may be the perfect place for workers to once again disregard the rules meant to keep them in their place. The perfect place for workers to demand more from a system that has been systematically rigged to deliver for business and the politically connected at the expense of working people in every community. The perfect place to lead a vanguard of progressive activism that just might be the jolt the entire national labor movement needs.
These modern-day rednecks are ready to fight.
Krystal Ball is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia. A former candidate for Congress in Virginia and host on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” she is a video host for the soon-to-be-launched Hill.TV project. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.