I was working at home today when the phone rang. The number was from my son’s school so I picked it up not knowing exactly what to expect.
After all I recently received a call from the school’s Assistant Principal (AP) that went something like this:
AP: “Did you know that your son Tucker is planning to wear a pink gorilla suit to ski club tonight?”
Me: (Pause, and audible swallow) “…Actually yes I was aware of that fact.” (Note: I was the one who had purchased the gorilla suit for him as a gift for that specific purpose.)
AP: “Are you aware that a list is circulating among students as to who would be allowed to tackle the skiing pink gorilla?”
Me: “No, of course not.” (no hesitancy this time)
I suspected the list was an exaggeration but in the end we agreed that it would be a good idea if Tucker left the pink gorilla suit at home, which I was kind of hoping would happen anyway. Tucker found a different reason to wear the gorilla suit to school, and on this day he wore his hockey uniform with red practice jersey to school in support of the teachers (wear red for ed day). Tucker enjoys pushing the limits of the school’s dress code on occasion.
So when the phone rang and the number indicated it was coming from his school I looked at it contemplatively for a second before answering. To my relief the voice on the other end was not a Principal, Assistant Principal or school nurse but was instead Tucker who said, “Dad, is it o.k. with you if I walk out of school and go to the rally today at the Capitol to support our teachers?”
I paused a second before responding as I was doing the calculus in my head to try to figure out: a) if he really wanted to support the teachers or if he was looking to take advantage of an opportunity to miss school; b) how my 13 year old son thought he would be able to get downtown to attend the rally, and c) whether I was willing to drop my work plans for the day to help him attend said rally. Then I remembered the quote by Martin Luther King Jr., that I had recently shared with friends on MLK Jr. day that goes, ”The time is always right to do what is right.” Long story short, we ended up going to the rally together.
MLK Jr’s advice was spot on; it was the right time and the right thing to do. We had a great day together. I picked Tucker up at the school and was upfront with the attendance office for my reason for taking him from school. One teacher said, “We love your son”, and made reference to Tucker’s red hockey uniform attire. Another mouthed “Thank You” to us as she went about her business.
Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of teachers. The work they do is incredibly important, and I know many teachers who work tirelessly on nights and weekends and even over the summer and holidays to provide the best learning environment possible for their students. I also respect just how difficult their job can be. I can’t imagine managing full classrooms of adolescent, hormone popping kids all day every day as my kids’ teachers do. I have plenty to handle with my own two sons and their friends all of whom are for the most part great kids. Public schools are the last great melting pot and they contain a full spectrum of kids with various abilities, interests, backgrounds and challenges. Each teacher daily interacts with kids that include future business and civic leaders to future criminals and ne’er-do-wells. This makes for a very dynamic and challenging work environment, but one that gives the kids perhaps their only close-up glimpse of people who are different than themselves.
Tucker and I drove downtown and had lunch before making our way to the Capitol. Over lunch we talked about what the rally was about, the labor movement, how the government works, and how citizens can influence and participate in their government. We talked about both sides of the issue as objectively as we could. My son said, “So basically, this is about the teachers and state workers right to band together to negotiate for a livable salary and better working conditions.” Bingo! We talked about what could happen if these rights were taken away, and how the middle class was gradually disappearing in our society and why this probably wasn’t a good thing. We talked about families we knew who were teachers and state workers who live a good but not excessive life, and what it would mean to these families if their pay and benefits were drastically cut. My son is currently studying the civil rights movement at school so we were able to talk about how the civil rights rallies were similar/different from the one we were about to attend which helped bring his lessons to life.
We grabbed some signs and made our way up to the Capitol. The vibe was very tribal. You got the sense that people were coming together and that what we were watching was democracy in action. It was an interesting looking crowd with many different kinds of people represented. We decided to go into the capitol itself where the hearings were occurring on the Bill to strip public workers right to unionize and collectively bargain. The atmosphere in the Capitol was electric. The crowd seemed to have its own pulse. There was a lot of power represented in those thousands of demonstrators, and to be honest I was a little bit concerned of what could happen if the crowd turned ugly. Fortunately it didn’t. The crowd was loud and energetic, but nonetheless civil.
This is a difficult issue. Right now many state businesses are struggling and many private sector workers have lost their jobs or seen their benefits reduced and/or been asked to accept pay freezes or reductions.
Teachers and state workers do have relatively strong benefit packages, which makes them an easy target for politicians who don’t like collective bargaining or unions. However a recent industry analysis (http://epi.3cdn.net/9e237c56096a8e4904_rkm6b9hn1.pdf ) showed that the public sector’s total salary and benefits package is about 8.2%% below comparable private sector jobs. In the past public sector employees have accepted lower overall compensation than their private sector peers in exchange for stability. State workers have recently been willing to make concessions to help with the budget challenges and have accepted pay freezes and unpaid furlough days to help keep costs in check through a challenging budget environment.
I believe this conflict is the tip of the iceberg, and I am not sure we are well prepared to deal with it as a society. In 1979 the people in the top 20% of earners made 8 times as much as those in the bottom 20% and today they make over 15 times as much, and the income gap keeps getting larger. The middle class is eroding too with top 20% now making over 4 times as much as the middle 20%. So the rich are getting richer at a fast clip, the middle class is being squeezed out, and the poor are growing in ranks and are suffering and straining the limited resources available to help them.
Our domestic manufacturing jobs and support services jobs (think HR, IT, call centers, etc.) continue to be lost to cheaper overseas alternatives. When these jobs leave they are not being replaced with similar jobs, and people are either unemployed and on the brink of financial ruin, or need to work longer hours or have multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
I am worried for my children and the subsequent generations that come along if these trends continue. A disappearing middle class increases the odds that many people will have a difficult time finding a career where they are not constantly struggling to just get by. It is also troubling because a society with an increasingly rich elite class combined with a ballooning poor class is one that is going to have significant troubles (crime, health, homelessness, political unrest, perhaps even revolution).
To me this bill is dangerous. By removing workers from the negotiating table it sets the stage for worker exploitation, and in particular a degrading of the quality of education our children receive. School districts have had their hands tied with finances for a long time and have already made deep cuts to services for our kids. If you take away collective bargaining the easy way to make the budgets balance will be to reduce pay and benefits for teachers. If they balk and leave the schools will replace them with a cheaper, less experienced alternative. If you move teaching jobs from middle to low wages more teachers will need to take second and third jobs at night and on weekends to make ends meet leaving them less time and energy for our kids. Fewer top college students will consider the teaching profession as a career as the quality of life associated with being a teacher will decline, meaning the quality of teachers and instruction will gradually decline as well.
Scott Walker is not a scholar. He dropped out of college after earning mediocre grades at Marquette. I don’t know if that is why he doesn’t appear to value education, or why he doesn’t understand the negative systemic effects that will likely result from his stripping public workers of pay, benefits, and a say in their working conditions. But it seems clear to me that he is willing to roll the dice and see what happens with our children’s future on the line which is unfortunate.
The silver lining to his assault on workers’ rights is that he is perhaps waking up the lion. The rallies at the Capitol have been energizing and encouraging. We still live in a democracy. Scott Walker has the right and the means to do what he is doing, but there are consequences to every action, the most obvious one being fall out in voting booth by legislators who decide to side with him.
There are many problems in our society but they are not insurmountable if we get informed and get involved. It is up to “We the People” to assure that our government reflects who we are, and what we value. I fully support the teachers and state workers in their efforts to protect their collective bargaining rights, and thank them for the hard work they do every day and the great example they are providing to us all on the workings and dysfunctions of our system of government.
Thanks for the reminder that in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The time is always right to do what is right.” It was refreshing to take a stand together with my son and those who support the rights of others and I look forward to continuing to fight for what is right to keep Wisconsin moving forward.