Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story
October 16, 2011
I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.
Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.
So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.
As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.
I left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.
To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.
I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association. It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.
That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?
When I worked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.
At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.
The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.
Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.
Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.
This is what the 99% are pissed about.
The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.
Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.
Not to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.
And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.
I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.
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