An Update on the Rhode Island Pension Debacle

An Update on the Rhode Island Pension Debacle

I learned about the pension debacle in Rhode Island from a security guard in a parking garage in upstate New York. We were chatting about retirement when he asked where I originally came from. His next statement caught me off guard as he related the news about attacks on teachers’ pensions in Rhode Island.
It took a few days to have the news confirmed by reading an article on possible pension cuts in The Journal (“Unions gain ground in pension reform war after judge’s ruling,” September 14, 2011). That Rhode Island was planning to renege on legal promises made to its retirees made sense in the context of an article I had previously read in The New York Times that noted Central Falls was planning to drastically reduce the pensions of retired police officers, firefighters, and other workers in that city (“Faltering Rhode Island City Tests Vows to Pensioners,” August 13, 2011). The juggernaut to strip pensions benefits from retired teachers, retired state workers, and city and town retirees in Rhode Island was on!
Meanwhile, in the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island’s Compass newsletter (Summer 2011), State Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo writes that “It is in no one’s best interest to delay fixing the problem (referring to the $7 billion shortfall for “already accrued benefits”). Of course, this so-called “fixing” refers to the attempted theft of benefits already promised to retirees.
After 30 years working as a teacher in Rhode Island, I hardly think that I, and thousands like me, should be penalized by bad investment decisions of The Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, decades of poor judgment concerning pension benefits, the notoriously dysfunctional state government, and the disastrous lack of economic planning. Also, retired state workers and retired teachers and future retirees ought not to have to pay the price for the ill-advised early retirement disaster of the late 1980s in Rhode Island that caused serious problems in funding future retirement payouts, a situation now worsened by the “Great” Recession.
Times have never been better for wealthy Rhode Islanders and big Rhode Island corporations. The same is true throughout the rest of the nation. But of course, there is no state and national will to tax those at the top of their game, so those in the middle class and working class are being made scapegoats for the national (and state) tax parties that have been going on since the Reagan administration.
Rhode Island officials, bent on attacking retired state workers’ and teachers’ benefits, have focused on the 3 percent yearly Cost-of-Living Adjustment (C.O.L.A.). Those officials ought to try to survive in the current economy with the astronomical prices of basic consumer items. Some of these same officials need to try looking for work after retirement, as the economy has cast off millions of older workers, treating them as disposable.
On October 23, 2011, Rhode Island’s general treasurer, Gina Raimondo, was back in the news (“The Little State With a Big Mess,” The New York Times). Ms. Raimondo campaigned and won election on an anti-pension platform. Bond holders would be protected, but those unlucky enough to have given their entire working lives in service to the people of the state would be disposable. The latter is no surprise from an elected official with an Ivy League pedigree, a member of the same elite crew based on Wall Street that has visited havoc across the nation’s entire economy. Near the end of The Times article, Ms. Raimondo states that “I feel your anger,” speaking to retired Rhode Islanders at one of the recent forums on the pension debacle. Ms. Raimondo, you have no idea!
Any average retired worker coming into Rhode Island with the intent to steal the same amount as is being planned by the state government would be tossed into prison and the key would be thrown away!
Nationally, there’s lots of energy being poured into the anti-union movement and the anti-teacher movement. Threats to in-service and retired teachers’ future and present retirement benefits are but one facet of this anti-union and anti-teacher movement that seeks to portray everything public as evil and everything private as good. Teachers across the nation take hits because they are the most visible segment of public sector unions. While the economic race to the bottom proceeds in Rhode Island and in the rest of the nation, state government seeks to hoist its dysfunction onto the backs of those who labored for decades with the promise of pensions and some measure of dignity.

Colleges and Universities Fuel the Race to the Bottom with Adjunct Faculty

Colleges and Universities Fuel the Race to the Bottom with Adjunct Faculty

Hiring adjuncts to teach university courses is big business. In the 1970s, adjunct instructors made up a tiny fraction of university and college faculties, mostly teaching specialty courses or teaching as guest lecturers (including filling in for professors on sabbatical). By the 1980s, according to Elaine McArdle in “The Adjunct Explosion” (University Business, 2006), adjuncts made up 20 percent of all courses. By 1998, according to the US Department of Education, as cited in McArdle’s article, adjuncts made up 43 percent of faculties across the nation. From 1970 to 1998, the article cites an increase in community college adjuncts from a low of 20 percent to a high of 60 percent. At New York University, adjuncts fill a whopping 70 percent of core courses.

Adjuncts serve at the whim of the institution in which they teach. McArdle quotes Professor Larry Gerber, and associate professor of history at Auburn University: “Adjuncts are thought of as disposable.” To stitch together what constitutes making a living, many adjuncts teach at several institutions at a fraction of the salary of a full-time faculty member, while being granted absolutely no medical, pension, or vacation benefits. As has been my experience as an adjunct at a community college, although I’m expected to maintain office hours, I’m not paid for that service, but I belong to (and pay into) the union that represents all university faculty members.

There is no mistake about what’s happening on US campuses: there are very few exceptions to the explosion of adjuncts. Just as US corporations began outsourcing labor in the late 1970s, and followed labor to its cheapest locations throughout the world, so did colleges and universities follow suit, and at the same time.

I had my first adjunct experience at my alma mater in Providence, Rhode Island. I taught a course in reading education each semester, including summers, for six years. I was dropped from the faculty with the specious reason of having had my course switched over to a full-time faculty member as a money saving measure. Of course, the opposite was true since adjuncts are cheaper than full-time faculty members. I suspect the real reason for my dismissal was my left points of view being totally unacceptable to the administration at this Catholic college.

I began working at community colleges in 2005 following a 30-year career in public schools. I eased into the community college environment in Florida working as a reading and writing tutor. The job was a fairly good one with ample hours and decent colleagues. Most of the students I worked with in the learning labs there were academically needy, most often newly arrived immigrants who needed serious remediation in reading and writing skills and strategies. The college itself was a fairly reactionary place with religious influences everywhere on campus and an ultraconservative administration.

Leaving Florida, I began working at a community college in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts, a small campus compared to the school I had left in Florida. I performed the same roles in Massachusetts as I had in Florida, but the learning lab in Massachusetts was somewhat of a joke. Tutors were paid for each student, and if the student didn’t show up for a session, the tutor was left waiting and denied pay for that time slot. The environment at the community college in Massachusetts was stifling, with higher-level faculty jobs (even for adjuncts) granted on the basis of who the applicant knew in a position of power. I thought that I had left the system of nepotism behind when leaving the public schools of Rhode Island years earlier!

After two years in Massachusetts, I was hired as an adjunct to teach two sections of a remedial reading course in upstate New York, where students who tested poorly on a post-secondary test were placed into reading, writing, and math remedial courses much as they had been in Florida and Massachusetts.

Students in remedial courses often (but not always) have negative attitudes about college course work, as they wrongly believe that they are being forced to take courses they don’t need to take. In New York City alone, in excess of 70 percent of students entering college are in need of such help. Other students are in school because they don’t know what to do with themselves in the dreadful economic environment in which we all now live. A small minority of students are in school because that is what their families expect of them. Others are there to collect federal aid. A very small minority of all community college students have behavior problems. Other students have learning disabilities, although some learning-disabled students can succeed in a college environment. After my second year in the community college classroom, I believe that perhaps three to five students out of a each class of 20 that I teach will be able to go on to succeed in regular college classes with continued academic assistance.

Though the odds for success are neither with me nor most of my students, the atmosphere of the community college classroom can be rewarding. If only several out of each course succeed, then I believe that the investment made is worth it. I don’t generally find problems with support from administration in upstate New York, but my membership in the union seems a complete waste of money to me, although I’m a strong supporter of unionism. My major concern with the community college environment as an adjunct instructor is that I have absolutely no chance at tenure, have no benefits, and could be fired at the whim of administration if I said anything that could be considered controversial in class, and since I’m politically progressive, the chance of that happening is not remote.

A final note. An e-mail appeared in my community college inbox during the last academic year. The e-mail was from a faculty member of a department at the college to his department chairperson. In answer to the chair’s complaint that he was overworked, the faculty member recommended that he go out and hire some adjuncts. It sounded as if the faculty member placed adjuncts in the same category as buying a cup of coffee.

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

New York City is arguably the most beautiful and vibrant city in the world. Perhaps I feel that way because many of the most profound changes in my life took place there. While I lived in New York, I formulated my personal philosophy as a resister to the Vietnam War in 1970-71. It was there that I met people who became the most influential in affecting the course my life would take.

 

Heading down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment this past weekend was the natural thing to do. I met my daughter and grandson in Grand Central Station and took the subway down to the epicenter of the world’s globalized economy. Wall Street is the epicenter of why one percent of the people in the US own forty percent of all assets and why the highest levels of poverty (especially childhood poverty) since record keeping began have been recorded by the US Census Bureau. And of course, the federal government, which lives in the shadow of Wall Street, facilitates this abomination. What a scene at Zuccotti Park, a.k.a. Liberty Park, on Broadway in the financial district. I had not seen the likes of this kind of demonstration since the very heady days of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Young people (although middle aged and older folks were well represented) crowded the walkways of the park and its perimeter. And why not? Their job prospects and idealism have been roughly dealt with by this not-so-great recession. Although the corporate media has attempted to slander and libel the movement, the gathered demonstrators were most articulate and highly organized as to their goals and motives for the Wall Street occupation.

 

Their goals are quite simple and alternately complex. They demand that the economy be transformed so that it answers to the needs of average working people in the United States, and indeed throughout the world beyond Wall Street. They are adamant in their upholding of the tradition of peaceful direct action, a tradition enshrined in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement. They want corporate and wealth’s influence in the politics of this nation to end, and they want the 99 percent that makes up the rest of this nation’s citizenry to benefit from the economic, political, and social systems in which we live. They want the erosion of average folk’s  assets to end and be reversed, and they want the gross inequality created by the oligarchic political system to end.

 

From Liberty Park, Saturday’s agenda called for a march to the heart of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park. Once there, a General Assembly was held, its highlight being consensus reached by the thousands of protesters assembled there through direct participatory democracy. Because the legions of police assembled at both Zuccotti Park and Washington Square Park banned the use of a bullhorn, a creative technique was used to communicate to the masses of people assembled. A system of hand signals (a kind of sign language) was incorporated to supplement speeches. The thousands of demonstrators echoed back the statements of speakers with hand signals used to show support for, disagreement with, or equivocation of all of the points being made. Groups formed following the formal presentations to take up the myriad tasks required for carrying out the work of the occupation.

 

The police seemed to be behaving better than on previous days of protests, with no macing, beating, or harassment of demonstrators.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have given marching orders to police to cool their heels, since the whole world was literally watching through the sophisticated news reporting developed by the movement’s tech representatives. Even a multibillionaire like the mayor had to leave some room for the democratic expression of speech.

 

Back home in Massachusetts, I had been receiving e-mails for a few days for a planned rally in support of the occupation and to draw up a list of actions that reflected the local flavor of this movement to democratize the US. I figured that a handful of people would show up, but was overjoyed that about 250 folks turned out in front of my community’s town hall to voice their concerns and develop a plan of action for dealing with the inequalities that the political and economic system have created where we live. Following the spirited demo, people gathered behind town hall to discuss, face to face, what their hopes were for addressing the great divide that has been created by the movement away from the principles of fair play, equality, and the hope for a full life for all members of the community.

 

It has been a very, very long time since I have dared to hope for a reversal of the great slide in the prospects for a future based on peace and equity. The facts are incontrovertible that the reversal of fortunes began in the middle of the decade of the 1970s and has progressed since then. Globalization, wars, and ecological destruction have been the hallmarks of this catastrophe. Now, there is a movement of ordinary people who are willing to confront power and demand justice and equity in their lives and in the lives of others. A caution must be reckoned with, however. Power never concedes anything without a struggle. The only true democracy is in the streets, and I think that is the crux of what this nascent movement is all about.

 

As a postscript to this piece, the Occupy movement suffered a blow when occupiers in Boston were beaten by police in the early morning hours of October 11th. Some of those beaten were members of Veterans For Peace.

 

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer and college instructor. He blogs at howielisnoff.wordpress.com and at leftfaceprogressivewriting.wordpress.com.