Sunday, February 20, 2011

Egypt, Bahrain . . . Wisconsin

If you only have time to look at one set of facts about the Wisconsin economy and the battle over union rights playing out around the Capitol in Madison, look at this one.

College-educated workers on the state payroll earn a median wage that is 9 percent less than their peers in the private sector. The educated elites, in other words, are hardly in it for the money. Workers without a bachelors degree, in contrast, earn a median wage in the public sector that is higher than their peers in the private sector. The net effect, as I read it, is that public sector work in Wisconsin keeps the educated engaged in work for the common good, and it serves the wellbeing of those workers who lack a college degree. The protests in Wisconsin have sometimes been portrayed in the media as the work of teachers, but this is not simply about teachers, or education, or even the rights of unionized workers. Without decent work for a decent wage, and without a political culture that resolves matters through conversation and negotiation – not the calling-out of police snipers and efforts to make money, not reason, the means of effecting policy – Wisconsin would look even more like Egypt and Bahrain than it does now.

All week, my undergraduate pre-service teachers have been asking me what I think about the debate. I am not allowed to tell them, if that means favoring one side in a political dispute (a reasonable enough requirement), but I have been trying to find ways to help them understand what is going on. After all, as an educator of future teachers, one critical piece of my job is to introduce to students ethical, political and social issues that will affect them as professionals. So, we’ve been talking about labor history in Wisconsin, about income inequality, about the current arguments for and against teachers’ unions. All the while, I’m very cognizant that it would be easier and safer for me just to sidestep the issue and tell them to figure it out for themselves so that we can stick to pre-assigned coursework. If someone decides that even talking about the issues in a non-politicized, education-focused way is unacceptable, I’d be much better off with the organized support of my colleagues. Worker solidarity matters. Without it, there is no equality and the only voice speaking is money.

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