So far the angry teachers of Wisconsin have not yet won over the public. They have not convinced the majority that, in an age of staggering budget deficits, they — or, indeed, public employees in general — must as a veritable birthright enjoy salary, benefits, and pensions on average far more generous than those of their private-sector counterparts, who make up the majority of taxpayers.
Teachers are right that the crisis transcends compensation. Yet why, others might ask, would teachers’ unions oppose merit pay? Why should someone who did not join the union still have to pay its dues? Why should the state have to collect the dues from employee paychecks on behalf of the union? Moreover, when these questions are posed amid a landscape of teachers skipping classes to protest, urging students to join them, and soliciting fraudulent doctors’ notes to cover their cancellations of classes — while their supporters in the legislature hide out to prevent a quorum and thereby subvert the democratic process reaffirmed last November — the public becomes further estranged from their cause.
All of this evoked my own memories of a teaching life juxtaposed with farming in the private sector. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1980 I returned home to work the trees and vines for five years in hopes of helping to restore a run-down farm. I then was employed first as a part-time teacher and then as a professor at California State University, Fresno, for 21 years (1984–2004). Some of that time I continued to farm on weekends and in the summers.
The experience was schizophrenic. In farming, almost everyone I met was constantly hustling — welders, independent truckers, contractors. There was no guaranteed income, no pension other than Social Security, and no health benefits of any kind. I bought a Farm Bureau–sponsored private health plan with a $1,000 deductible — catastrophic coverage that I never found occasion to use — and paid cash for doctor’s office visits. My first two children’s deliveries maxed out my Visa card.
There was no sick leave for the self-employed. A day with the flu meant the amount of work to do the next day doubled. Weekly compensation was not compensation at all, but rather an advance on an operating loan from the bank: If the crop came in and sold, and if at the end of the year such income exceeded expenses (I remember my first year, in 1980, we borrowed at 17 percent, and prices for everything from sulfur to fertilizer went up 10 to 15 percent in mere months), then one earned something for the year’s aggregate labor. If not (as in 1983, when, without explanation, the price of raisins crashed from $1,200 to $450 a ton), then one not merely earned nothing, but in effect paid for the privilege of working — a common, humiliating fate for the strapped pizza-parlor owner, the independent window-cleaner, or the car dealer. I figured that the 1983–84 operating losses meant that I owed the bank about $12 an hour for each hour I had driven the tractor, pruned, or irrigated, the entire time unknowingly paying for the privilege of hard physical labor. Again, all that is too familiar for legions of realtors, insurance salesmen, contractors, and the variously self-employed.
Teaching was the antithesis of everything brutal in the private sector. In my first full year, I used to write down in amazement — after prorating my annual salary on a per-diem basis — what I made on Saturdays, on the day after Christmas, on the Fourth of July, and on all the other days when I was not working. Yes, there were hours spent in the evenings correcting papers, staying long after class to advise students, endless committee work, class planning well beyond the eight-to-five grind, and research over the summer. Angry parents, administrators, and students could all at times be abusive. A pile of blue-books, totaling some 2,000 pages of poorly written essays, was no fun to go through on weekends. My colleagues sometimes bought books for their students, and often purchased their own materials. For a decade I shared a cramped office in a trailer with acoustical tiles falling on us like bombs from the ceiling.