STEM Crisis Myth Revealed: Industry Leaders and Politicians Need a Surplus Army of STEM Workers (Clayton Pierce, Ph.D.)Posted: March 29, 2014
Great compliment to Boak Ferris’ article “Why English Matters: What the Science Says.” Reblogged from Clayton Pierce’s blog “Education in the Age of Biocapitalism.”
Over the past 10 years especially, calls to increase Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering (STEM) output from our country’s schools has been deafening. It is impossible to listen to almost any policy maker or CEO speaking on the topic of education reform in the U.S. who does not couch their entire analysis on the STEM worker shortage crisis the country is currently facing. Schools and universities in the U.S., if they are to do one thing, so the story goes, is to produce a massive STEM workforce that can help the economy roll past fast moving competitors such as India and China (insert any other country that scores better on the trends in international mathematics and science study [TIMSS] test). The problem with this story, as Harvard Law School senior research associate Michael S. Teitelbaum has recently pointed out in his study on the STEM workforce shortage, is that it…
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Jeff Kolnick’s thoughtful comments below, questioning the quality and courage of administrative leadership in our public institutions, echo a number of other recent media commentaries and publications that problematize this issue. Where have all the creative, courageous, and competent administrative leaders gone? Or is this a new form of academic nostalgia? Bringing clarity to this question is Diane Ravitch’s cautionary lecture on the ‘fetish of measurement’ overtaking the public higher education sector and the need for courageous administrators to rethink the “obsession with data let loose on the land.” This obsession is enhanced by President Obama’s recent campaign for a type of NCLB accountability system tagged to universities receiving federal aid; such aid abuse can be solved by other means. There is also Serena Golden’s intriguing new publication Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education.As we chuckle at the zombie meme we simultaneously note the dead zone of communication that often seems to exist between higher level administrators and their worker faculty on our campuses. Perhaps we have entered a post-MOOC media mania moment, where some very serious issues like the real and immediate need for strong and principled academic leadership at this moment in the shifting sands of higher education history can find some space in our ed journalists’ tweets and blog musings. Teri Yamada
Colleges, universities should show less caution, more courage and challenges
Prof. Jeff Kolnick (Southwest Minnesota State University), Aug. 21, 2013
The fall semester is an exciting time to be a college professor. The spring semester has its charms with the promise of summer and the thrill of graduation, but for me, the start of the school year is what keeps me coming back for more. My scholarly work over the summer months pays off immediately in the changes that appear on my syllabi. My batteries are recharged by a blessed absence from office politics and paperwork. And the best part is I get to encounter a new class of college students. This year many of these newcomers will be from the high-school class of 2013.
The class of 2013 is an important group of young people. Many of them would have started their academic journey in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency and entered first grade under No Child Left Behind. They also began the first grade around the time of the Sept. 11th attacks. For this class of young people, their academic minds have been shaped by a steady diet of high-stakes standardized tests, and their civic consciousness has been molded by a nation continuously at war.
What kind of colleges and universities will these students enter? While reading the current issue of Harper’s Magazine I discovered Harry Lewis, a distinguished professor of computer science at Harvard and the former dean of Harvard College. To give you a sense of Lewis’ thinking on the current state of higher education, I share this with you:
“One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the [United States] is that it is lacking in universities. As institutions, they now operate much more like ordinary corporations, fearful of bad publicity, eager to stay on good terms with the government, and focused on their bottom lines, than as boiling cauldrons of unconventional ideas sorted out through a process of disputation, debate, and occasional dramatic gestures.”
More cautious, increasingly conservative
I teach at Southwest Minnesota State University, not at Harvard. And at SMSU, disputation and debate are common, though the dramatic gesture has retreated largely to the theater building! But Lewis was thinking institutionally and not about individual classes or particular events on campus. And I think he is right. I have been around colleges and universities since 1977, and in that time the institutions have become cautious.
Education is now seen as a personal investment, not a public good. Scarce dollars cause colleges to chase money from billionaire philanthropists who push free-market solutions to every conceivable problem. University leaders feel the need to appeal to increasingly conservative state legislators who despise government.
University governing boards, chancellors, presidents, provosts, deans and chairs (and, sadly, even most faculty) are afraid to challenge the conservative orthodoxy because they desperately want to save what is left of higher education. Colleges and universities, as institutions, used to challenge authority with facts and reason. This is less common today and stems, I believe, from the austerity agenda of the super rich.
Mentor ‘shocked one into thinking’
Eleanor Roosevelt once said of her mentor and favorite teacher, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, that she “shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial.” It is this chance to shock students into thinking, into realizing the power of their own minds and ideas, that causes me to return each fall semester.
If ever there was a class of students that needed to be shocked into thinking, it is the class of 2013. After 12 years of No Child Left Behind, too many of them have been numbed into believing that filling in bubbles can measure intelligence. Never having known a conscious moment of peace, some of them might think that war is normal.
What they need from a college is a boiling cauldron of unconventional ideas that are tested through rigorous debate and civil discourse. I fear that they will find instead institutions that prepare them only for work and not to think or, when necessary, to challenge stale orthodoxy.
MOOCs at U Minn — “Educating for democracy: the power of presence” (Lars Christiansen and Michael Lansing)Posted: July 26, 2013
This essay is reposted from MINNPOST with permission of the authors.
Educating for democracy: the power of presence
This summer, in collaboration with the educational company Coursera, the University of Minnesota began offering Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The decision brought a national debate about the transformative effects of the Internet on colleges and universities to Minnesota. Other local schools are also exploring the possibilities of MOOCs. Meanwhile, faculty either wring their hands or join in as ongoing debates about the meaning and consequences of online-only education continue.
Those who boost for MOOCs promise more access to higher education with lowered costs. Yet they make assumptions about teaching that obscure the complicated ways in which people successfully learn. Rarely do these commentators attend to the power of presence in teaching and learning. These assumptions often lead to overstatements regarding the democratic potential of online-only education.
First, they assume that technology refers only to devices for online coursework. Too often, pundits conflate technology with the latest version of Internet-ready computers, pads, and smartphones. In fact, chalk and chalkboards, pencils and papers, dry erase markers, overhead projectors, cameras, slide machines and video projectors are also technologies. Teachers and learners used technologies long before medieval Europeans invented universities.
More than ‘sages on stages’
Third, pundits presume that more typical forms of education consist only of “sages on stages.” Yet colleges and universities offer learners much more than lectures. Most institutions provide more diverse experiences, including: discussions, internships, lab work, field work, archival research, literature reviews, group projects — and, of course, online discussion boards, wikis, blogs and web pages.
Fourth, MOOC boosters assume that education is about the thinking mind, not the feeling body. For the last 100 years, educational theorists have consistently rejected such dualistic thinking. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Mark Johnson insist that feelings and emotions — which emerge through sensory capabilities of the person in their surroundings — remain crucial to intellectual endeavor. Feeling and thinking are phases of an experience, not separate and distinct acts.
Left unchallenged, these assumptions lead those who advocate for online-only learning to argue that the format supplies the same learning experience as face-to-face settings. In their mind, online education delivers the same thing as existing forms of higher education, but makes them cheaper and more accessible.
Online education offers promise it can’t deliver
It doesn’t. Instead, an experience with far less potential is being offered to greater numbers of people, even as boosters present it as the same experience as the varied forms of education that already exist. Online education offers the promise of something it cannot deliver. It robs the very people that it claims to enrich. The rush to online learning also undermines and devalues educators who understand and deploy the vast opportunities for powerful learning that come from engaging the whole person.
After all, content is not an abstract thing that teachers merely communicate to students. Learning occurs through any number of distinct experiences. The qualities of every educational experience matter. By itself, online learning — involving sitting (or standing) at a computer, looking at a screen, scrolling with a mouse, and typing with a keyboard — offers a limited experience. When presented as a substitute for or alternative to direct experience and embodied presence, online learning insults rather than enriches.
In contrast, physical presence offers the gift of embodied interaction. To be sure, some instructors succumb to giving boring lectures to students who remain uninspired, disconnected, and passive. Others, however, embrace a multitude of experiences to help students learn. They work hard to evaluate the educational value of every reading, lecture, site visit, guest lecture, film, puzzle, problem, research project, laboratory experiment, performance, or service and community-based project for learners.
Ignoring embodied experience: a major step backward
The power of presence must find a place in public debates about the merits of MOOCs. This requires educators to take seriously the sensory capabilities of students, as well as the role of feeling and emotion in learning. Teaching that ignores embodied human experience represents a major step backward in educational practice. It also reveals a staggering ignorance of educational philosophy and theory.
Minnesota’s colleges and universities should work to empower students in their quest for higher education by reducing tuition and debt instead of embracing disembodied online-only learning. Then they could increase access to an education that cultivates excitement about learning, develops a wide range of skills and competencies, and fosters empowered citizens committed to making a better society. All learners — irrespective of socio-economic circumstances — deserve nothing less.
I have just returned from six weeks in Cambodia. Since 1996, I have worked there for most summers to assist Khmer colleagues rebuild the higher education sector. The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) has a number of buildings spread throughout the city. The RUPP building shown at the left contains the science labs which were stripped of every item and turned into holding pens for pigs by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Not only was the entire material infrastructure of the country dismantled and destroyed so was the intellectual infrastructure with over 90% of teachers, professors, judges, lawyers, doctors killed with the back of their head smashed in with a club (bullets were too precious to use) or they died from hard labor, extreme exposure, or from starvation, or a variety of illnesses — malaria, dengue, influenza, etc. At least 90% of all library materials were destroyed as the Khmer Rouge used paper from books to roll cigarettes or for fuel. I mention this because during the 1950s and 1960s Cambodia had the best public school system in Southeast Asia and now remains in runner up place for the worst. It has been very difficult for Cambodia to reconstruct the intellectual capacity it once had in the late 1960s to be competitive in the new global economy. There are unknown consequences to dismantling a functional, however imperfect, public education system. Of course, in our case, it doesn’t require the Khmer Rouge.
We Are All Corporate Professors Now (and what to do about it): Summer Reading Mashup
by Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach
Over the past few months a number of excellent academic writers and public intellectuals have published information on the “corporate professor.” Some contend that the formation of this role is aligned with the politics and economics of an “inverted totalitarianism” that has been overtaking American democracy since the 1970s (Hedges). The question arises: How can we protect shrinking public spaces of open discourse—our own university’s capacity to protect and foster academic freedom and diverse research—in an age that promotes brand over content?
For how we got here, start with Ethan Schrum’s “A Bibliographic Essay on the University, the Market, and Professors” in The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2012). This is a nuanced, well-researched historical overview that covers the two major structural shifts in the “constantly changing university”: post WWII and the ascent of neoliberalism from the 1970s. The general public, which once viewed public education as a common good in the 1960s, has been propagandized into a perceptual shift that valorizes free markets and the university as a private good. It is during that thirty-forty year process that unknowingly and unintentionally we became corporate professors.
With Schrum’s overview as a basis, continue to explore the role of the corporate professor in Gaye Tuchman’s essay “Pressured and Measured: Professors at Wannabe U.” also in the same issue of The Hedgehog Review. Here is her understanding of the historical and economic context in which we find ourselves:
“Student consumerism, the control of faculty through metrics, the endowment, the division of athletics, and the commodification of education are all linked in a fairly straightforward manner. Emphasizing the individual right to profit for decades—indeed, the rights of the individual over the responsibilities of the individual to the group—neoliberalism has been identifying education as a private good. It has also stressed the virtue and ubiquity of modern corporate organization, especially its ability to compete in a global economy and to “grow profits.” In part because universities have adapted to these tenets, in part because they have been conforming to the “best practices” of other institutions, in part because states have been putting their money into other activities, such as funding prisons to force miscreants to take responsibility for their actions, the relationship between higher education and the states has changed. Colleges and Universities have become ever more corporatized…. (They) have struggled to find alternative revenue streams, such as sales of and royalties from faculty inventions. Designing new regulations to promote productivity and to spur professorial compliance, they reward conformers and punish shirkers.”
Within this historical context the corporate professor, according to Tuchman, is “increasingly regulated by an accountability regime, a politics of surveillance, control and market management disguised as the value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations (italics mine). it is the structural analog of an audit culture.” We are all familiar with the imposition of student assessment metrics by our regional accrediting commissions, most significantly over the past decade as their own accountability came under scrutiny through the federal government’s displeasure over graduation/retention rates and PELL grants.
In response to assessment demands outsourced to us by our own university management under pressure from accrediting commissions seeking to prove their own accountability to the federal government, we have embedded student learning objectives in courses and programs; measured them through a variety of instruments; written reports on outcomes. We email our reports to assessment coordinators or administrators who coordinate that process. They gather this data into massive, time-consuming reports which they forward to regional accrediting commissions in preparation for site visits. All of this to prove that we are “accountable”; yet, I have never received feedback from management on any annual assessment report or plan that I have submitted. Under the threat of program elimination, reluctant corporate professors have slogged through assessment report production. We must prove through data and assessment that we and our programs are “valuable.” Through our efforts, in a sort of halo effect, academic managers acquire “value” and subsequently our accreditation commissions. In this way we have inadvertently become conformists of value.
The time-consuming nature of program and course assessment is a topic taken up in Dave Porter’s “Assessment as a Subversive Activity” in AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom (2012, v. 3). Since it is a response to two previous articles in AAUP JAF (2011) critical of the “relentlessly expanding assessment movement,” it provides a good overview of critical opinions regarding the whole university assessment regime. Porter has a point in reframing the problem of assessment in terms of a “lack of institutional integrity and the manipulative managerial style of administrators who do not understand the learning process and educational systems sufficiently to implement assessment programs effectively” (2). That resonates as true; however, faculty are not in a position to fire incompetent administrators. Only the campus president has that authority. Not a single administrator with multiple negative faculty evaluations on performance reviews has been fired during my twenty-two years on campus.
We are experiencing a structural flaw in the organization of the “public” university: administrators exercise much more power over faculty through the assessment regime than faculty do over administrators. I suggest we seek an adjustment. Our colleagues at the University of Virginia have demonstrated success in rebalancing power through concerted collective action, enabling the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan. We could begin to change the management/faculty power imbalance by rotating qualified faculty into a significant number of administrative roles for three-year terms with an option to renew. Could academic senates facilitate structural change by voting to implement this type of plan as a five-year pilot program? The reduction of highly paid administrators would result in cost savings with the potential of a better managed public university.
There is a dangerous correlation between the assessment/metrics regime and the loss of creative space for research in the corporate public university. If research doesn’t generate money through patents or grants, if a project’s outcomes can’t be quickly measured for short-term gain, then it has no measurable value in Corporate U. And it if can’t be measured, it appears to have no value. Moreover the metrics of assessment are now wedded to the corporate professor’s tenure and merit pay. This culture of accountability ensures the public that tax dollars are not “wasted on useless professors.” Different points are assigned to various types of publication. A certain number of points must be scored over a certain number of years to receive merit pay with little recourse for grievance. Texas seems to be particularly keen on this type of standardization (3). A culture of surveillance of this nature is not conducive to risk-taking in research. Thus we undermine our own global competitive edge through a narrow-minded accountability regime.
Several scholars and think tanks have published commentary and reports that express concern over the decline of research institutions in the U.S. Some attribute this to the corporate culture of the university that emphasizes individual competition over collaboration, and quick money over larger, expansive forays into the unknown (2).
Wrapping up, here is an email advertisement I received last spring in advance of our regional accrediting commission’s (WASC) annual assessment gathering (ARC) with its many vendors (1). I have removed the company’s name for legal reasons; the bold type is theirs. It reminds me of a billboard I saw in Phnom Penh recently selling “newness’” as fashion (anything new and trendy must be good so buy it!):
We couldn’t say it any better than WASC
“U.S. higher education is in the midst of a paradigm shift. We face economic, technological, political and social challenges and more change is on the horizon. It is clear that we must transform higher education … but how?” – ARC webpage
We couldn’t have said it better: New paradigms, New media. New methods. New modalities. Each aimed at delivering the ultimate student experience, all for the greater good.
At XXX Systems, we know student outcomes are your highest priority. And that colleges and universities today are also looking to improve business performance – by containing and reducing costs, by branding themselves to attract the best students, by standardizing and automating business processes.
Not to mention keeping pace with an unforgiving environment of reporting and accountability.
To stay ahead of these disruptive events and paradigm shifts, you need a disruptive technology — you need XXX Enterprise …a twenty-first century academic management system that’s Innovative…Integrated…Intelligent” (4).
1. WASC may be listening to criticism from both the federal and local levels. See Fain’s “Rise of the Accreditor? See also Keep’s “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.”
2. For example see Atkinson and Stewart, Kiley, Clay, Chomsky, and Nelson below.
3. Adjuncts tragically are even more marginalized, see Berrett’s “Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents a ‘Dismal Picture’ of Life as a Part-Time Professor.”
4. For another view on disruptive technology see Neem’s “Disruptive Innovation: Rhetoric or Reality?”
Atkinson, Robert and Luke A. Stewart. “University Research Funding: The United States is Behind and Falling.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report. May 2011.
Atlas, Ben. “Chris Hedges on the Inverted Totalitarianism and the Commodification of Culture.” December 12, 2010. Benatlas.com
———. “Chris Hedges on the Corporate Neofeudalism.” December 12, 2010. Benatlas.com
Berrett, Dan. “Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents a ‘Dismal Picture’ of Life as a Part-Time Professor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2012
Chomsky, Noam. “Academic Freedom and the Corporatization of Universities.” University of Toronto Scarborough, April 6, 2011.
Clay, Rebecca. “The corporatization of higher education: The intermingling of business and academic cultures brings both concerns and potential benefits to psychology.” American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology. 39.11 (December 2008).
Donoghue, Frank. “Tenure: Yes or No?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 14, 2012.
Fain, Paul. “Rise of the Accreditor?” in Inside Higher Education. July 10,2012.
Giroux, Henry A. “Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie: The Education Deficit and the New Authoritarianism. Originally a Truthout Op Ed. June 19, 2012.
———.“Zombie Politics, Democracy, and the Threat of Authoritarianism – Part I.” Peter Lang. June 2011.
Higgs, Steven. “Commodifying Education: The Corporatization of the American University“. Counterpunch. November 2011.
Jaschik, Scott. “U.S. Decline or a Flawed Measure?” Inside Higher Ed. October 8, 2009.
Keep, William. “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The June 21, 2012.
Kiley, Kevin. “How to Stay on Top.” Inside Higher Ed. June 15, 2012.
———“Big Target, Bigger Cuts.” Inside Higher Ed. January 18, 2012
Neem, Johann. “Disruptive Innovation: Rhetoric or Reality?” Inside Higher Ed. June 26, 2012.
Nelson, Libby A. “Where Will the Money Come From?” Inside Higher Ed. July 12, 2012.
Porter, Dave. “Assessment as a Subversive Activity” AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, 3 (20012).
Roberts, Yvonne. “The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz — review.” The Guardian, July 13, 2012.
Somek, Alexander. Individualism. Oxford University Press, 2008. Review in The International Journal of Constitutional Law
The National Research Council. “Research Universities and the Future of America.” 2012
Wilson, Robin. “Faculty Power Brokers at UVa.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 1, 2012.
Guest blogger Deborah Keisch Polin is a parent, graduate student and education activist in Western Massachusetts. She is a member of the Education Radio Collective, a radio program that features interviews, testimony and analysis on issues facing public education in the U.S. through voices of teachers, parents, students, community members, education activists and education scholars, found at: Education-radio.blogspot.com. Please check out Ed Radio’s show on education and the 99% movement – We Are the 99%, Fighting for the “Public” in Education – at: http://education-radio.blogspot.com/2011/10/we-are-99-fighting-for-public-in.html
Reflections from UMASS-Amherst: The Occupy Campus Movement
As I sit down to write this post, I have several different tabs open on my browser that I keep compulsively checking – each keeping track of the happenings at various Occupy Movement/99% locations around the country on this International Day of Action. Just a few days after Zucotti Park was aggressively cleared, and thousands of dollars of supplies and personal possessions were destroyed, those who have been residents there for the past two months are undeterred by these intimidation tactics and are back at it, with overwhelming support from across the country as Occupy camps and actions emerge in more spaces daily.
I am particularly inspired by how this movement— in the streets, parks and on university grounds— is increasingly making the connection between the issues of the 99% and the fight for equity in public k-12 and higher education, and how it exposes the efforts to transform education – at all levels – into a profit-making enterprise. Teach-ins —by students, by faculty, and by community members -—are becoming just as commonplace and expected in these spaces as the use of the human microphone and the people’s libraries. Higher education students, staff, instructors and faculty are fighting back—demonstrating that we are fed up with increasing tuition and fees, overwhelming debt (student debt in this country now exceeds total credit card debt), unaffordable health care costs, curriculum driven by private research interests and classrooms that are increasingly surveilled. The connections between these and the Occupy Movement are obvious, and the opportunity to point that out is one we cannot afford to pass up.
There is no tolerance for dissent in the current climate of privatized attitudes shaping public education. Berkeley professor Celeste Langon, aggressively arrested during a recent Occupy Cal event at Berkeley, notes this in a post she wrote upon her release for the blog Remaking the University. In the following excerpt from that post, she writes about the university justification for breaking up the Berkeley encampment containing a language of corporate efficiency. She begins with a quote from Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau: (Read the whole post here: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-i-got-arrested-with-occupy-cal-and.html)
We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism. No one wishes to “waste” resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”—can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.” Dissent, like free inquiry, is sometimes inefficient. Dissent doesn’t always have a “deliverable.” But it takes time to determine a just answer to “What is to be done?”.
This attitude is contrary to the core of what higher education should ideally represent— an environment of critical inquiry, which includes an examination of the conditions of working and learning at a public university. Celeste Langon serves as a model for academics to resist this co-opting of their profession by corporate and elite interests. But she can’t stand alone. Not everyone is in a position to get arrested, but we each must ask ourselves what can I do – what does my dissent look like? Because inaction equals complicity in the destruction of academic freedom and of schooling as we know it.
My own state of Massachusetts ranks 46 out of the 50 states in per capita appropriations for higher education (See the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts for more data: http://phenomonline.org/). This is not a time for compromise with the university. At UMass-Amherst we have tried that, and conditions have not changed. Our graduate student union has successfully negotiated raises for graduate employees, only to have the university counter these raises with increased fees (by 7.5% this year alone). The health care benefits that the union has fought for have just been cut with a 17% increase in premiums and a 15% co-insurance requirement for any off-campus care, which includes Ob/Gyn services. This prompted panic among pregnant graduate students who suddenly have to come up with thousands of dollars in labor and delivery costs that they hadn’t budgeted for. These are just a few of the examples that push access to a public university education further out of reach for many students.
The encampment and rallies at Occupy Cal are an inspiration. On my own campus, Occupy UMass is off to a slow but steady start, with more of a presence each day. And I am struck by the flicker of hope and excitement I feel at the immense possibility this moment has opened. Access to quality education for all people must be at the center of this fight – and that fight must be now – there is no time left for negotiation.
Comments from the Editor:
Several excellent essays, written over the past few weeks, reflect Polin’s concern about protecting the intellectual space of the pubic university or college campus from corporatized violence and repression. See Henry Giroux’s Occupy Colleges Now: Students as the New Public Intellectuals and Juan Cole’s How Students Landed on the Front Lines of Class Wars.
The Assault on Public Employee Unions
Over the past three years we have seen the cumulative impact of a wide and varied number of unprecedented and unrelenting attacks on public employees in general and public employee unions in particular. This ongoing campaign is not a merely a series of individual and isolated events, but rather is an integral part of a well-planned long-term coordinated strategy to undermine working people’s livelihoods and destroy what remains of important hard-won collective bargaining rights. It is no great secret that this effort has been in a great part orchestrated and massively financed by a number of extreme-right wing millionaires and billionaires, including the once reclusive and secretive, but now increasingly infamous Koch brothers.
The most recent and glaring demonstration of the assault on public workers occurred earlier this year in Wisconsin. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker (whose campaign was heavily financed by the Koch brothers and their affluent allies) deepened an existing fiscal crisis by giving massive tax breaks to wealthy individuals (including campaign donors) and large corporations.
Using the budget shortfall as a rationale, the governor demanded that Wisconsin public employees make significant concessions concerning salaries and pension benefits. After the unions finally agreed to accept these unprecedented proposals, the real agenda emerged – to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Despite sit-ins at the state capitol and some of the largest protest demonstrations in the state’s history, nearly all union rights of most state workers were eventually revoked by law.
In addition to Wisconsin, several states including Idaho; Indiana; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; Nebraska; New Hampshire; Ohio; Oklahoma; New Jersey, and Tennessee have recently enacted legislation restricting the rights of union members. Legislation has now been introduced in 43 states to change collective bargaining for public employees. Even in the ostensibly “blue state” of California, a ballot initiative has been filed that would amend the state constitution to prohibit the recognition of all public sector labor unions and prevent bargaining between these unions and government authorities.
It is important to note that such repressive and draconian measures, if adopted, might possibly violate existing international law, which definitively states that workers have a human right to organize and bargain collectively, according to Amnesty International.
It is somewhat encouraging that all of the media attention concerning the widespread vicious attacks on unionized public employees provoked a backlash, which has produced an outpouring of popular support. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken in February, 2011, expressed the sentiments of most Americans who now strongly oppose taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The poll found that 61% would oppose legislation in their state similar to the Wisconsin bill, compared with 33% who would favor this type of law.
Another example of this historic sea change in public attitude is reflected in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted last March, which clearly demonstrated that Americans firmly reject recent efforts to restrict the bargaining rights of union members. Interestingly, this survey also reported that 63% of respondents feel that corporations have more political power than unions. Public employees were viewed favorably by 72%, compared with 17% who saw them unfavorably. Of those individuals polled, 63% do not think that states should be allowed to break the promises previously made to their retired workers. Most importantly, 64% believe that public employees should have the right to bargain collectively. This result is also consistent with Parade magazine’s online poll, which found that 92% of the respondents believe that America still needs labor unions.
A solid majority of individuals polled in these surveys seem to have a clear understanding of the critical role played by organized labor in the struggle to achieve benefits for working people – benefits which unfortunately are often taken for granted. It was the unions that were instrumental in creating the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek with overtime. It was union activists who successfully fought for paid employee vacation and sick days, genuine retirement security with pensions, and health benefit packages including medical, dental and vision care. And it was the unions that bravely took a stand against the blight of child labor, and stood for unemployment insurance, workplace safety laws, a minimum wage, Social Security and worker’s compensation. Because of the efforts of labor unions, society as a whole changed for the better.
Union members and non-union members alike need to remember the great successes and monumental gains of the past and recognize that they are being threatened by the critical situation the American labor movement is currently facing. In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression and in the midst of often contentious and sometimes violent labor disputes, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) was signed into law as an important component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal. This legislation established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to assist workers in protecting recently won rights to bargain collectively over their terms and conditions of employment.
Eventually, based upon the percentage of all employed workers, union membership peaked at around 30–35% in the 1950s, which was also a time of unprecedented prosperity with a thriving and vibrant middle class. In contrast, for the year 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the nation’s union membership rate was 11.9%, down from 12.3% a year earlier. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. Despite the general nationwide decline, California now leads the nation in reporting the largest number of union members (2.4 million) with a membership rate of 17.5%.
The most disturbing finding of the 2010 Labor Report was that the union membership rate for the public sector (36.2%) was massively higher than that for private sector workers (6.9%). Why has the labor movement lost so many members in the private sector? The answer lies partly with actual and threatened job losses due to the impact on the large manufacturing sector of both globalization and so-called “free trade” – trade which sometimes pays near slave-labor wages in developing countries. Manufacturing was the great union bulwark that had once provided American workers with good wages and solid benefits.
The other key factor is that public sector employees had limited, though important, protections against wholesale retaliation for union-related activities. In the private sector, employees who attempted to organize in the workplace were often intimidated or summarily discharged. The unfortunate reality is that joining a labor union is no longer viewed as being an employee’s “legally protected” right. According to the NLRB annual report for 2005, there were 31,358 people who were either disciplined or fired for engaging in union activities. A poll conducted in December 2006 found that 58% of non-managerial workers would join a union if they had the opportunity. An ever-present and genuine fear of losing one’s livelihood prevents uncounted numbers of private sector workers from being involved in union organizing, despite wanting to do so.
The current assault on public employee unions is due in great part to the fact that they are the last remaining vestige of what was once a viable dynamic force, fighting for the economic rights of workers in this country. Organized women and men employed in the public sector are now precisely targeted in the crosshairs of determined, ruthless and well-armed adversaries.
Unions may possibly be the last major impediment standing between the total domination of the political and economic system by an oligarchy composed of a new breed of obscenely affluent “uber-libertarian” iconoclasts who want to establish another “gilded age” for present-day America. These plutocrats vehemently oppose even the slightest leveling of the parameters of an inherently unbalanced power relationship that exists between employee and employer, which is attained through collective bargaining. With what can only be described as religious fervor, they are convinced beyond reason that government has absolutely no legitimate function regulating business or providing for basic human needs. The Wall Street dictum that “Greed is good” has been baptized and morphed into “Greed is godly.” The libertarian fringe element is fervently committed to “starving the beast” and destroying all of the social progress achieved since the passage of the New Deal. In fact, extreme right-wing animosity toward Roosevelt’s policies isn’t only confined to FDR; it starts with the “Square Deal” of Teddy Roosevelt, the “trust buster” and conservationist who set aside massive tracts of land for national parks and ushered in the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century.
These ultra-conservative zealots look forward to returning this country to what they believe were the “good old days,” even though it will inevitably result in the same horrible conditions experienced by most workers in the past. They want to restructure the economy in order to once again create a society which is composed of only the greedy few who have riches beyond their wildest dreams and the vast majority who exist in a permanent state of human wretchedness.
Already, we can see the emerging “looneytarian” impact on the political process, creating a topsy-turvy skewed world where billion dollar corporations have been declared to have the same free-speech rights as people, and thus can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy elections. In this kind of world, all public services will one day be completely privatized by predatory corporate interests; all schools will have tuition and all roads eventually lead to a tollbooth.
Recently, public employees and collective bargaining have become convenient scapegoats, being vilified and blamed for the intractable financial difficulties faced by many state and local governments grappling with the repercussions of the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. The crisis faced by governmental agencies nationwide was not caused by public employee unions: it is the result of persistently high unemployment rates and collapsed housing prices which, along with unfair regressive tax systems that favor the wealthy, have resulted in enormous tax revenue shortfalls.
Our current economic situation is a direct consequence of the wholesale looting of financial markets by modern day robber barons engaging in a reprehensible new form of unregulated “casino capitalism.” These are the same individuals (with businesses interests that were “too big to fail”) who were subsequently bailed out when their financial “house of cards” not so unpredictably collapsed, and are now receiving obscene salaries, with accompanying bonuses and bewildering lucrative stock options. The benefits of a one-sided jobless recovery have not yet moved from the plush boardrooms of Wall Street to the threadbare living rooms of Main Street; the penthouse suite is now even further from the basement.
The tactic of the right wing is to convince the voters and taxpaying public that collective bargaining is responsible for widespread state and local budget deficits. This Big Lie narrative depicts living wages, comprehensive health care benefits, and retirement pension programs as outdated concepts which are prohibitively expensive. In the present day economy such advantages are unavailable to millions of private sector workers, and therefore this line of reasoning concludes that governmental agencies can no longer afford to provide these amenities to their “coddled and greedy” employees.
Significantly, the overall decline of labor unions over the past several decades has been a major factor in the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States and rapidly growing income inequality.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported on an analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, which found that in the generation following World War II, economic gains were shared widely, with the incomes of the bottom 90% actually increasing more rapidly in percentage terms, on average, than the incomes of the top 1%. However, since the late 1970s, the incomes of the bottom 90% of households have remained about the same, while the top 1% experienced massive income gains.
The average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households is almost $900 below what it was in 1979, while the average pre-tax income for the top 1% is over $700,000 above the 1979 level.
Piketty and Saez determined that two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains in the most recent economic expansion from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1% of U.S. households, which held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928. During those years, the real (inflation-adjusted) income of the top 1% of households grew more than ten times faster than the income of the bottom 90%.
The Financial Times notes that during this same period of economic expansion, the median US household income actually dropped by $2,000, which meant that most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the beginning. The annual incomes of the bottom 90% of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – increasing by only 10% in real terms over the last 37 years, during the same period in which the incomes of the top 1% tripled.
The Economic Policy Institute reports for the year 2009, the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households had a net worth that was 225 times greater than that of the typical household, which is the highest ratio ever recorded. Approximately one in four U.S. households had zero or negative net worth, up from 18.6% in 2007.
Although it is estimated that approximately 84% of the nation’s wealth is held by the upper 20% of the population (with the richest 1% hoarding almost 50%), researchers Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely reported that surprisingly, a panel representative of average Americans believed that wealth is distributed a lot more fairly in this country and greatly underestimated the present degree of our present inequality.
In 1973, chief executive officers (CEOs) were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now they are paid in excess of 300 times more. The New York Times recently commissioned a study which determined that for the year 2010 the median annual compensation of CEOs at the 200 largest U.S. companies was $10.8 million, a 23% increase from the year before. A USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found that for the same year, CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies received a median average of $2.2 million from bonuses, up 47% from $1.5 million in 2009.
By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 first quarter report revealed that the median wage for 98.3 million full-time workers was $755 a week. This amounted to an increase of only a scant 0.1 more than the prior year – very far below the 2.1 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index, which records the real cost of everyday living.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, points out that since the early 1980s a larger and larger share of the nation’s total income has been transferred to the very top. He notes that in 1980 the richest 1% of Americans received 10% of total national income, compared to over 20% of national income now. The result of this 30-year trend has been that the middle class lacks sufficient purchasing power to boost the economy without going deeply into debt. Reich writes, “The American economy can’t get out of neutral until American workers have more money in their pockets to buy what they produce. And unions are the best way to give them the bargaining power to get better pay.”
To view the assault on public employee labor unions as merely an isolated and limited campaign is to lose sight of the big picture. Attacking the last bastion of unionism is a bold tactical move; but it is just part of a cold and calculated strategy to finally destroy what is left of the middle class. If we eventually lose the middle class, we will also lose America as we presently know it.
The middle class in modern America was created out of the hard-fought battles of the labor movement in conjunction with the progressive policies of the post New Deal era. It is important to note that during this time period the “rising tide of unions lifted all boats” as it can be shown that collective bargaining raises the general salary levels of all workers, even those who are not unionized. Neither non-union nor represented employees should easily dismiss or forget the importance of this “invisible hand of the unionized marketplace.”
Despite all of the recent setbacks for the American middle class there have recently been some extremely encouraging developments, such as the exponential growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a solidly grassroots effort which has now received the support of organized labor. The powerful and compelling argument that 1% of the population massively benefits at the great expense of the remaining 99%, may eventually begin to resonate with an increasingly frustrated and angry populace.
Late in the year 2011, we look forward with guarded optimism to a better future for this country with a revitalized and committed universal labor movement, including both private and public sector employees, supported by union members and non-members alike, which could become a driving force that will protect the important gains made over the past several decades for all working people. We must fully engage in a protracted struggle to save the middle class with all of our available resources, so that the promise of the American Dream will indeed become a reality for future generations.
Guest blogger Betsy Burrows, Assistant Professor of English at Brevard College, describes herself as a “concerned teacher, mother, and citizen in North Carolina.” Her comments below lament the negative impact on equity in access and the quality of education that reactionary ideology and big money have succeeded in forcing on North Carolina’s public schools. What was once a model system is being downgraded through a creeping restructuring and privatization of the entire public education infrastructure.
Tragedy in North Carolina: Re-segregating and Dismantling Public Education
by Betsy Burrows
I still remember the romantic, idealistic defiance I felt in my high school days when I youthfully debated against the following sentiment as expressed in “Self –Reliance,” an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.” That idealism has turned to profound sadness when I look at what in one year our state legislators have done in North Carolina to quickly dismantle the last 25 years of progress and enlightenment in public education. In one summer session, North Carolina elected officials ceased the funding for the North Carolina Teaching Fellows, a research-based program housed in our public and private Institutes of Higher Education that recruits our best and brightest high school students into teaching, pays for a high quality preparation and supports them with professional development so they remain in the profession, not just for a couple of years like Teach for American candidates, but for a career. According to Linda Darling-Hammond in her 2010 book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity will determine our Future, “the program enhances [enhanced] the teaching pool by bringing a disproportionate number of males, minorities, and math and science teachers into the profession. After 7 years, retention rates in teaching for these recruits have exceeded 75%, with many of the other alumni holding positions as principals or central office leaders” (142). In this same 2011 summer session, legislators ceased funding the NC Teacher Academy and cut in half the budget for the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching. To add personal injury to the professional insult, North Carolina also ended funding for NC Governors School, a summer enrichment program for public school students throughout the State where at seventeen I first read the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Quickly following this defunding of public education and professional development for teachers in our State, was the NC State Board of Education’s approval of the application and rubric for what they call “fast track” charter school applicants to private organizations who can demonstrate that they can fund and operate a school successfully. The approval was not predicated on whether these charter schools were actually able to educate our children for their future roles of citizens in a Democracy, and the approval ignores national studies like the ones conducted by Stanford University’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) where economist Margaret Raymond findings conclude that “ in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face” (6).
These actions by NC legislators reveal an ideology that does not support public education and wants to privatize our school systems. In fact, Rob Christenson, a writer from the Raleigh News and Observer has investigated the ties between these newly elected legislators and Art Pope, a retail executive who uses his money to fund libertarian-conservative think tanks like Civitias Action, Inc. and Real Jobs NC, nonprofit organizations that funnel money to legislators who support his views. Being a teacher, I could forgive my legislators for their ignorance in not doing their research on Educational issues, but as a citizen I cannot forgive their duplicity in failing to articulate their agenda and their allegiance to an ideology that supports ending public education, the foundation that our Democracy is built upon. I have never understood the Emerson quote that “Democracy becomes a pulpit for bullies tempered by editors” until now. I just want more “editors” to help temper these educational legislative bullies and their barbarous attacks on teachers and schools.
For further information on the impact of big money on the restructuring of North Carolina public schools, see: Robert Greenwald Discusses the Koch Brothers Battle to Re-segregate North Carolina Public Schools
Posted on September 24, 2011