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Interview with a warrior: Greg Pratt, homeless advocate

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Today’s interview is with my friend, advocate for the poor and downtrodden and purveyor of loudness, Greg Pratt. Greg’s a great guy in just about a billion ways. This interview should tell you why. You can learn more about the group he works with MISSION A2, here.

Who are you and what do you do?

Greg Pratt. I am a social worker by training, an organizer and movement worker by necessity. The two primary foci of my work are material and political support.

I help people with resources for living outside, so propane, water, socks, tents, sleeping bags, batteries etc. I also help them organize politically [internal and external]. Sometimes, that manifests in a camp community [internal] other times that manifests in local ordinances like the Good Neighbor Amendment to the Ann Arbor Parks Ordinance [external]. This amendment waives the fee for organizations handing out free material goods to folks in A2 public parks.

The Camp Take Notice Good Neighbor Subcommittee worked on this from April 2013 until the ordinance passed its 2nd reading on November 18, 2013. The Subcommittee was comprised of 7-8 individuals and I believe everyone but myself was homeless or recently emerging from homelessness.

You have done a lot of work with homeless people in the Ann Arbor area. How did you get started doing that work?

I am an alcoholic. On December 31, 2001, I had my last blackout and was charged with my third DUI.

On July 3, 2001, I was sentenced to six months in Oakland County Jail. The first five days were spent in the middle section of a three-section holding tank area of the Oakland County Jail. Each section was 10’ X 15’, separated by plexiglass, and had anywhere from 10-15 individuals in each section at any given time. There was one toilet per section. We were let out once per day to eat.

After I got out of there I was transferred to the County Barracks across the street for the work release program. This was basically an army style, bunk bed living quarters. We paid weekly rent [I think mine was something like 160-70 per week] and were allowed out of the barracks, at most, 5 days/week. I was only fortunate enough to get out 4 days/week.

After getting out of jail, I spent six months on tether [house arrest]. At the same time, I began my probation which included many hours of community service.

I chose to do my service hours at SOS Community Services at the River St. Location in Ypsilanti, MI. I did their “empathy training” to become a volunteer crisis counselor. At the time, the River Street SOS location served as a place for people to get referrals to other services in the area, food distribution, and a 24-hour crisis hotline which people used for information or just to talk when things were getting a bit to much to handle. I only had one suicide call [fortunately] while we still had the phone lines in place. I continued on in my volunteer capacity at SOS for a year after I got my hours for probation completed. I really enjoyed the work and the community I was a part of as a result of being there two to three times per week.

Anyhow, that is how I became involved. My first social work mentor, from SOS, was Christina Oliver. She still works in the area as a disabled-persons’ advocate.

I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since February 19, 2001. My higher power is the collective consciousness of all living beings. I am not anonymous, but I practice the principles in my daily life.

Do you find that the situation for homeless people in Ann Arbor is getting worse or better? Is Ann Arbor becoming increasingly closed?

I think you may be asking the wrong person on this one.

I am going to give an answer that is the best I can with the information I have from the friends [I don’t use the word client or consumer] with whom I work.

Assessment
On the one hand Ann Arbor is great because of its manifold set of resources for low-income people struggling with mental/physical health, addiction, and unemployment. On the other, it has very little in the way of low-income housing that is near places of low-income employment. The bus system is ok, but has limited evening hours during the week [M-F] and pretty much zero hours on weekend nights. So, if you live in Ypsilanti and work in Ann Arbor and have no car, your options for hours to work are limited as a result of these limited transportation options. If you talked to the current VP of MISSION, Jimmy Hill, you may get a more comprehensive version of what it is like trying to navigate one’s way out of homelessness in Ann Arbor.

Is is getting better? I hope that in the wake of the forum hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library last week it will. Camp Misfit A2 [one of the groups interdependent with MISSION] has, through their activism and public actions, put the issue of lack of affordable, low-income housing on the radar of local politicos as well as the local human services industry. I am cautiously optimistic right now.

Ann Arbor, as a small and somewhat well to do area, likely does not have the social space or will to accommodate an underclass, but at the same time, would not like to be seen as exclusionary. Do you think that Ann Arbor will ever be able to rectify these competing problems?

Good question. For me, change will have arrived when “our” kids can play with “their” kids.

I don’t think that we will ever correct the problem given the current system of resource distribution in our society, Capitalism.

Capitalism is a system that is framed to encourage economic growth. In this system, there are winners and losers. It is not “survival of the fittest” that determines winners. It is more like a complex gambling system that is weighted toward those with more wealth.

So, I think for Ann Arbor to rectify these problems, we would have to end capitalism as it is practiced now.

Here is another point I want to make. This one is predicated on our capitalist system of resource distribution. Homelessness is not a pond we can drain, but rather a river that flows on beyond our time here on this earth. We can dam up the river and provide bridges at certain sections of the flow, but regardless of our actions to “stop the flow” it continues on just like the wind.

There are people who are “chronically” homeless. But, most folks struggle with this for a matter of months. At our camp out on Wagner Rd [RIP], the average stay was just under three months. The Delonis Center has a similar statistic, although I think stays have been increasing over the last couple of years there.

I’m finding it interesting that Ann Arbor is having discussions about whether to create and improve public spaces, based on a perception that homeless people will use them (like this is a bad thing). How much of these concerns is based on alarmism, and how much is justified?

I think that we need to plan those spaces in an inclusive way, all stakeholders at the table. If we were to take that tack as a community I think we might reduce some of the alarmism. But ultimately, I think the folks with capital to invest in this area would rather see sunshine and lollipops and yellow brick roads, than help people who are struggling to make it in our community.

What do you see ultimately happening?

For the time being, more sunshine and lollipops and yellow-brick roads to nowhere for the poor and to increased wealth for Rick Snyder and his Carpet Bagger Finance Capitalists.

You’ve also done work with the unions, specifically during the push to bring GSRA’s into GEO. What’s your history working with labor?

Ugh. What a nightmare campaign that was. Before that disaster, I helped nontenure track faculty at MSU and EMU build their unions.

Yes, I worked for AFT Michigan [American Federation of Teachers]. I was a member of GEO as a grad student at the UM School of Social Work and was interested in learning labor/political organizing. I became a member of the GEO Organizing Committee just as our 2008 contract campaign was ramping up in December 2007. This was the contract campaign wherein we shut down both the UM Stadium and Business school renovation projects. I was picket captain for the business school site.

That summer, I was hired by AFT to work on a campaign with non tenure track faculty at MSU. After we won that campaign, I was sent to EMU to help bring the part time lecturers into the existing full time lecturer union. EMU has about 120 full time lecturers and about 500-600 [depending upon the semester] part time lecturers. In order to accomplish this, we conducted a few well-attended sit-ins at President Martin’s office. Paul Horvath [Math Lecturer at EMU] was one of the key lecturers involved in that effort. Good times.

After that campaign, I went to work with GEO leaders on bring the GSRAs into the union. In the wake of that Rick Snyder signed a law that prohibited GSRAs from joining a union. I believe this law has since been found unconstitutional and is in some sort of legal limbo on appeal.

That battle was eventually lost. It seemed like a really not so controversial idea. What do you think was going on to make it blow up as big as it did?

I think that conservative anti-union folks in Michigan watched AFT organizing at many of the colleges and some community colleges across the state. Grad Students, Lectures and even some faculty were joining unions in large numbers through the dedicated work of organizers like Jon Curtiss and Lynn Marie Smith between the years 2003-2010. When Rick Snyder was elected, the republicans had every lever of our state’s government under their control. I think they saw an opportunity and put a lot of resources toward blocking this campaign.

That describes what happened on their side. I think it is more telling, what happened on our side [labor]. Our leaders, when planning this campaign, did not listen to the suggestion of leaders on the ground in GEO and in general on campus. We were internally divided. That made it easier for the Mackinac Center to pick us apart and stop the momentum we had while out talking to hundreds of researchers like yourself.

You eventually left. What happened?

Unions are great at the local level. But, as they get bigger, the organizational structure mirrors the organizations they are meant to regulate or keep in check. I didn’t want to compromise my organizing style in order to get a paycheck. I decided that the work needed to be done was the work for which there is no paycheck.

I had been teaching at UM School of Social Work in Winter 2012. I continued on as a lecturer there and at EMU until December 2013.

I am currently unemployed, but doing the work for which there is no paycheck.
[MISSION]

What’s up with your radio career? How does radio figure in to your worldview as champion of the poor and marginalized?

You are very kind to call it a career :)
How does it figure in? Well, I grew tired of complaining about the media and decided to become a part of it instead. Viva Jello!

What’s up for the future?

1) Kicking ass for the working class!
2) Getting a job with a paycheck.

Make a Song for Taj: A Challenge

Syed Taj, a physician who formerly served on the Canton, MI city council, is running for Congress in Michigan’s 11th District. We made a song for Taj. Now we want YOU to make a song for Syed Taj.

A little background: The Republican incumbent was caught (either knowingly or not) forging signatures to get on the primary allowing Kerry Bentivolio to enter the race. Bentivolio is a disgraced for high school teacher from Fowlerville, MI who was repeatedly reprimanded for screaming at and threatening his students, among other things which I won’t mention here. If he wins, Bentivolio, a self interested and unemployable loser in all other respects, will walk into a cushy $174,000 a year job with health benefits for the rest of his life, all at our expense.

His other challenger is Daniel Johnson, a white supremacist known for gallavanting around the country, jumping onto local elections. Johnson proposes a Constitutional amendment to deport all non-white residents of the United States. Where they will all go, is a mystery, of course. It’s worth noting that Johnson is famous for fundraising for and having the support of Ron Paul at one point. Paul, no stranger to providing aid and comfort to bigots, later withdrew support, presumably because the political costs of supporting Johnson outweighed the potential benefits.

The Democratic candidate is a soft spoken Indian-born medical doctor. Taj is, for all practical purposes, a total long shot. If elected, he will only be the third Muslim to serve in the Congress. he will have been elected as a naturalized citizen in a predominately conservative district. He’s not a powerful public speaker but he listens well and cares deeply about the ideas of people in his community. Taj’s platform is fairly boilerplate Democratic. He supports the solid separation of church and state, supports expanded access to quality health care for all, supports public education, and supports the right of women to determine what happens to their bodies. Taj is a great candidate and would be a great alternative to the toxic set of representatives we currently have. Taj offers real solutions and thoughtfully addresses real issues.

My friend Mark first introduced me to this particular race, which is turning into one of the most interesting so far.

To help Taj, Mark and I decided to write a campaign song to entice voters to choose him in the general election. Originally, we had asked our friend Andy to come on board. He couldn’t do it so we brought our friend Dave Sharp on at the last minute. Below is the fruit of our 10 minute labor.

People have called the song “nice” (presumably so as to not hurt our feelings) and “terrible” (obviously indifferent to the fragile egos of old men). As reception has been mixed, I issue a challenge:

WRITE YOUR OWN SONG FOR TAJ. WE NEED TO GET TAJ ELECTED TO AS CONGRESSMAN FOR THE 11TH IN MICHIGAN.

That’s it. Write your own song for Taj, record it, and post it here. If you think our song blows, we want to see you do better. Because you can.

Vote Gretchen Driskell for Representative of Michigan’s 52nd District

On my drive to Ann Arbor everyday, I am assaulted with signs calling for the re-election of Mark Ouimet, the incumbent State Representative for my District, Michigan’s 52nd.

I did some research to learn something about the man. He doesn’t make it easy. In fact, his website says absolutely nothing. There are some pictures of him with overweight seniors and a catch all statement that well, doesn’t really state anything at all. He was nice enough to include some statements from friends and family showing what a nice guy he is, but nothing regarding real issues. His Facebook page doesn’t help much either.

This strategy of not saying anything at all seems to work with my neighbors. Perhaps they really don’t care at all who gets in, as long as he or she is Republican? Likely.

A little more digging, and I found out he’s in the top tier of Tea Party candidates (77% rating), and has departed from the Republican only 10 times our of 1105 votes. Ouimet’s obviously a follower and would rather vote with his party, than with his diverse constituency.

Perhaps his inability to make public statements on anything is really a problem of not having anything to say in the first place.

Besides being a really, really boring Candidate, Ouimet votes against core issues I care about:

He voted to:

1. require photo ID to both register to vote and to vote (anti-poor, anti-immigrant, or slimy vote grab, which is it?).
2. ban the state from entering into collective bargaining agreements with employees (anti-union, anti-worker).
3. restrict access to abortion (anti-woman, pro-paternalistic big government control of reproduction, or vote panderer, which is it?).
4. require drug tests of people receiving state assistance (anti-black, anti-poor, anti-living kids).
5. deny providing medical coverage to domestic partners of public employees (anti-gay, pro-big government micro-managing of sexual/domestic partnerships).

In short, Ouimet is a pretty run of the mill Republican. He will appeal well to angry white people in the countryside who blame all their ills immigrants, gays, black people, unions and aborting women.

I fail to see how Ouimet’s lock step voting record with Michigan Republicans will do anything to improve the State of Michigan. Maybe a do-absolutely-nothing candidate is exactly what people want. There certainly is little to question.

Gretchen Driskell, on the other hand, publishes a list of her stances on the issues for all to see. Really, there’s nothing I can say here that she doesn’t already say herself. Driskell is very much a centrist, which would be a welcome change over the far right set of Representatives Michigan has now. Local politics in a diverse area like Western Washtenaw doesn’t really need radicals.

Driskell, as mayor of Saline, is pro-community and pro-business, though clearly a lefty on social issues. She is on the Ann Arbor SPARK executive committee and affiliated with other local business development groups. She’s a great candidate for the job.

Amazingly, Driskell has already become victim to a Ouimet inspired smear campaign using public resources.

Hopefully, she’ll win and we can get rid of all of these Ouimet signs forever.

Michigan Ballot Proposals 2012: How I’m Going to Vote, and How You Should, Too

This year’s Michigan ballot sports a whopping 6 ballot proposals. As a public service, I’m going to run through them, tell you how I’m going to vote (barring new information) and explain why.

1. The Emergency Manager Law – NO - Too many unknowns. To much potential for abuse. Clearly, some communities in Michigan need a lot of help but the new EM law is nothing more than a back door to privatizing public institutions and marginalizing public unions. Vote NO.

(Note: I’ve done a lot of soul searching on this topic It’s worth looking at the discussion in the comments below.)

2. Constitutional Amendment Regarding Collective Bargaining – YES - There really isn’t much argument here. Unions are a good thing. I’m not excited about this: “Laws may be enacted to prohibit public employees from striking” but codifying the right to unionize is something that absolutely belongs in the Michigan State Constitution.

3. Standards for Renewable Energy – YES – Honestly, I don’t think this one will pass, but it’s a good idea. 25% of Michigan’s energy will be required to come from renewable energy sources, and utilities can only raise rates 1% to facilitate compliance. Extensions can be given, so that, even if it passes, utilities can drag their feet ad infinitum, but it’s the best we can get. Michigan needs a renewable energy future not just because it’s a good idea, but because Michigan needs industry and Michigan needs jobs.

DTE and Consumers Energy are putting a lot of money into convincing Michigan voters to vote no on this. Don’t be fooled by ads from CARE for Michigan. They really don’t care at all about Michigan.

4. Constitutional Amendment to Establish the Michigan Quality Home Care Council and Provide Collective Bargaining for In-Home Care Workers – YES -The Michigan Quality Home Care Council was created under Granholm in 2004 to provide collective bargaining representation and act as a regulatory body for home care workers. They would perform backgroun checks on workers and monitor them to make sure that standards were followed. The workers came to be considered State employees, but when Snyder came in, Republicans defunded the Council, the union sued and won a temporary injunction that will expire in 2013 when the Council’s contract runs out. Now, this initiative seeks to create a new council and restore bargaining rights.

Republicans hate it, which to me, makes it a good idea. Even if you don’t understand the details, that should be enough to convince you. The Council provides a needed service and establishes standards for a rapidly aging population.

5. A Proposal to Amend the State Constitution to Limit the Enactment of New Taxes By State Government – NO, MY GOD F**K NO If this passes, the state can’t raise taxes without a 2/3′s majority vote in BOTH the State House and the State Senate. This is short sighted Tea Party posturing as its worst.

Given an emergency, the State must reserve the right to raise revenues if need be. In today’s political climate, does anyone seriously believe that 2/3′s agreement on anything is remotely possible?

When GM finally goes under, and Michiganders are lining up to either get fed or find a job, the State better have the power to balance out some of that lost income revenue. We don’t need to wait for self interested State Congress members to learn how to get along. Simple majorities and regular elections are fine.

Turns out this gem is brought to you by Matty Maroun. If this passes, then the tax breaks that keep fat cats like Matty even richer will be impossible to take away. This seemingly small proposal cedes all taxation power to a small minority of people, namely Matty and people like him that worked hard to make sure their money wouldn’t go back to the State.

If this proposal passes, nearly all the loopholes and tax breaks, which let the rich keep their money and invest it elsewhere, stay in forever. It’s worth noting that Mississippi has a similar law, and we know how things work down there (at least I do). Even Republicans, Gov. Snyder and a host of business groups are against this one. In fact, the only people that seem to be for this are Matty himself, and the most right of right wing Tea Party groups.

Michigan can do better than this.

6. Constitutional Amendment Regarding Construction of International Bridges and Tunnels – NO NO NO NO- Brought to you and paid for by Matty Maroun, the 85 year old billionaire and owner of the Ambassador bridge who want to retain his dangerous private monopoly on one of the most important international crossings in the world.

Now, this is just one example of how disgusting and cash rotten American politics have gotten. Matty is flush with cash, and can buy just about everything he could ever want in the perhaps 2 years he has left on this earth. The only person this proposal would benefit were it it to pass is Matty himself.

The State of Michigan, the United States and Canada deserve a publicly owned international crossing, not a creaking pit for a money hungry bridge troll.

Right Wing Advocacy Group Successfully Stifles Democracy

A couple of weeks ago, Gov. Rick Snyder (of Michigan, of course) signed a bill that prevents graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) from having a say in whether they want (as a group) to unionize.

For nearly the past 2 years, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) has been attempting to bring GSRAs into the union, which now only represents graduate student instructors (GSIs). GEO has been instrumental in guaranteeing fair wages for graduate employees, insuring that graduate employees receive that same health care package that all UM employees receive, and providing representation when disputes arise. Not many universities offer as generous a support package as the University of Michigan, which makes the U extremely competitive in the market for quality graduate students.

In the early 1980′s, the Michigan Employee Relations Committee (MERC) determined that GSRAs, who were a minority at the time, were not employees of the university (and thus of the state) and thus would not qualify for representation under the union. That situation has vastly changed. Now GSRAs outnumber GSIs and the U has morphed into a research behemoth. GSRAs play a pivotal role in the U’s status as a world class research institution and in Michigan’s fragile economy.

The conservative Mackinac Center, a non-profit public policy group that has made no secret of it’s stance against public employee unions, offered to pay for legal fees to challenge GEOs bid to allow GSRAs to vote whether to enter the union. With this backing, a rag tag group called Students Against GSRA Unionization, took the issue to the state and after months of wrangling, the issue manifested itself as a Republican led bill.

The bill, which Gov. Snyder signed, essentially codifies the MERC decision from the early 1980′s and quashes any arguments that GSRAs should enter GEO. Simply, GSRAs cannot vote to join any union and now have no right at all to collective bargaining or unionization.

Though this post is embarrassingly late, the issue fills me with rage. Certainly, I despise the Mackinac Center so I am biased in this regard. To critics of the decision to unionize GSRAs, I would remind you, that GEO was seeking merely a VOTE. If this isn’t “big government” at work, I’m not sure what is.

If the body of GSRAs decided that it was not in their interest to join the union, the it would not happen. Certainly SAGU and any other group could make the case against unionization and the issue could be put up to discussion. It was very possible that GEO would have lost in a public vote.

That idea seems to have escaped SAGU, which probably feared that they would lose such a vote. (FYI: This was an odd group. Their initial spokesperson, Melinda Day, was filmed snickering and rolling her eyes at a hearing before the Michigan Legislature, apparently oblivious to the presence of adults in the room.)

Gov. Snyder’s and the Republican led state legislature’s decision however, robs GSRAs of the right to vote. Given the current pattern of Republican led efforts to deny the vote to Michigan’s citizenry through the enaction of EMF programs, this should be of absolutely no surprise at all. Republicans in the state of Michigan, who purport to believe in democracy, really only believe in the power of the vote when it suits their own ends. Certainly, this is endemic to political groups under any label, but the heavy handed, and unrestrained, actions of the state in this case make the problem so incredibly obvious as to defy explanation.

So here, I say, fuck you Gov. Snyder. You are an embarrassment not only to the State of Michigan, but to democracy itself, which you obviously don’t care about. I’ll see you in 2014.

Sweden: Could it have been a model for Michigan?

Business goes to Sweden because of its amazing metal scene

I just spent the last week in the amazing (though cold) country of Sweden. On my last day there, I was wandering lost in downtown Stockholm and stopped to ask an older gentleman for directions. He asked where I was from, I told him I was from Michigan.

“Yes, I’ve been there. It has approximately the same population as Sweden, and approximately the same GDP.”

I became instantly depressed as I realized that he was absolutely right. The similarities between Sweden and Michigan are vast. Both are cold areas surrounded by water and both are sufficiently blessed with natural and human resources to support a deep manufacturing sector.

By no coincidence at all, both areas are full of people of Swedish decent.

However, despite having similar social, natural and economic bases, the differences between Sweden and Michigan are immense. In contrast to Michigan, all Swedes have health insurance. In contrast to Michigan, all Swedes have heat. In contrast to Michigan, all Swedes have the right to political representation. Foreigners are even allowed to vote in local elections. In contrast to Michigan, the large majority of Swedes have jobs that allow them to live a healthy middle class existence.

Most importantly, in contrast to Michigan, Sweden has one of the most active, dynamic and vibrant economies on the planet. In fact, riding in from the airport, one sees the headquarters of companies one would expect to see in a place like Michigan, world class manufacturing and tech companies that are all employing Swedes. In fact, Sweden is desperate for labor to support its booming economy. If you have any type of skill, there’s a job in Sweden waiting for you.

Sweden is the most economically equal country on the planet. The Gini coefficient for Sweden in .23 vs. Michigan’s depressing .45, the same as that of Bulgaria or Guyana.

Sweden has some of the highest taxes on the planet. A full half of income can be sent to the Swedish Tax Service. Sales taxes top 25% for most items. Alcohol is taxed at 100%. Taxes make up nearly half of Sweden’s GDP.

It’s a Republican’s nightmare. High taxes, high regulation, high levels of market distorting subsidies on food and public services, heavy rules on public behavior and heavy rules on wages and working conditions. It’s Ron Paul’s worst case scenario.

Despite this, Sweden has one of the most exciting economies on the planet. It is one of the most pro-business places I’ve ever been.

Contrary to Republican logic, this is due, in large part, to guarantees of government provided guarantees of quality health care for all that relieve businesses of having to bear responsibility for creating insurance plans. If the large number of boutique vinyl shops all over Stockholm are any indication, anyone can start a small business in Sweden. In America, one has to do without health insurance to start a business, a risk that only the wealthiest can bear.

In Sweden, like health care, pensions and unemployment insurance are funded through citizen contributions. This means that private businesses don’t run into the problem of becoming bankrupt when they lack money to fund their pension plans.

The Swedes are highly educated and healthy. This means that foreign businesses wanting to set up shop in Sweden have a vast pool of highly educated and able potential workers to draw from. In fact, Sweden’s biggest problem right seems to be that it lacks UNskilled service workers.

All of this is in contrast to the disastrous situation of Michigan, where we have gutted public education to the point where we have one of the highest drop out rates in the country. We get stupider by the day. Nearly 15% of Michiganders lack access to health insurance. Michigan workers are too sick and too uneducated to meaningfully contribute to the economy. Worse yet, the recent installation of emergency financial managers has erased any potential for improvement. Nearly half (note: the poorest half) of Michigan lacks political representation in 2012, clearly a dream come true for Republicans everywhere.

Why would any business come to a place like Michigan?

Mostly, I’ve returned depressed. Michigan had its chance and it blew it. Exactly why do I live here?

Right Winger Schuette Proposes to Block Unionization by UMich Research Assistants

The University of Michigan boasts one of the most successful graduate student unions in the country. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) can be credited for helping UM graduate students get one of the best deals among all American graduate schools. Those of us who receive funding from the UM and other sources enjoy a guaranteed decent wage, a health care plan identical to that which standard UM employees receive, and a place to turn for help to when things go sour.

Though all funded graduate students receive the same minimum guarantees that GEO members do, until now only teaching assistants have been officially allowed into the union. In the early 80′s when GEO was formed, teaching assistants far outnumbered paid research assistants (GSRA’s_, and the thinking was that GSRA’s were a special category of graduate student that did not require representation by a union.

The numbers, however, have vastly shifted as UM slowly became a research giant. Now, GSRA’s outnumber teaching assistants and play a vital role in the University’s standing as a massive research institution. GEO has embarked on a plan to allow GSRA’s to integrate with the union and is calling for a vote among all GSRA’s to decided whether this should, in fact, happen. What appeared to be a simple procedure has now turned into a political battlefield.

Right wing groups, specifically, the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center (whom I’ve written of before), have entered the fight, seeking to prevent the student union from expanding. As we have seen in other states, all public unions are under fire from rightists who ostensibly see collective bargaining as an obstacle to a free market but, in reality, merely seek to consolidate power into a few hands.

It’s no surprise, of course, that 19 present and former self-interested school deans have also opposed the unionization of GSRA’s, making the bizarre claim that a worker’s union (which in effect already represents the GSRA’s in practice) would somehow discourage students from coming the UM. I can see it now, “Hmmm, this school has a graduate student union, not going there!”

Really?

Fortunately, the Mackinac Center failed in their bid to block the state board, MERC, from hearing the case to allow GSRA’s to merely vote on whether to join the union. The Mackinac Center waged a laughable campaign where they enlisted a single poorly spoken graduate student to public protest the GSRA effort, implying that the unionization of GSRA’s would prevent students from finishing their degrees and shutter the mighty University of Michigan for good.

Tea Party favorite and extreme right-winger Bill Schuette has now also entered the fight against unionization of GSRA’s, though this should be of little surprise. Schuette has intimate ties with the Mackinac Center and, in fact, was a guest of honor at one of their events. Schuette opposes the Affordable Health Care Act, and has in fact sued (using Michigan dollars) to have it overturned. Schuette can’t figure out whether he’s for or against medical marijuana but definitely knows that he wants to put pot-heads in jail. Schuette has actively tried to close abortion clinics in Saginaw. Schuette hates immigrants, and, in fact, despite being in the Michigan government, inexplicably made supporting the racist Arizona immigration law a part of his election platform. Wow. Who voted for this guy?

It should be obvious that this issue is about more than just some small local issue, but part of a growing trend of right wing power consolidation that is occurring (or maybe has been continually occurring) all over the country. I, for one, support the right for all to unionize. The small can only resist the powerful in large numbers.

UM Endowment Soars, Poor Students Need Not Apply

This morning I was treated to not one but two infuriating articles on education. The first was a report that the Unviversity of Michigan’s endowment is now the seventh highest in the nation, just under elite insitutions like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. U of M’s endowment grows by more than 9% per year, far outpacing most people’s retirement accounts and even outpacing that of the growth of many small developing countries. To put it in perspective, the entire budget of the country of Malawi, where 13 million people live, was approximately 845 million dollars in 2008.

The UM only pockets about half of what it makes from interest revenues and reinvest the remainder, but that still leaves it $266 million to spend at will. To be fair, the UM takes some of that money and invests it in start up companies and research, but, as far as I can tell, a sum total of ZERO goes to investing in keeping tuition fees low and creating scholarship opportunities for bright but financially handicapped students. For that, the UM shifts responsibility on to Federal and State governments to provide financial aid. The UM’s scholarship programs are notoriously pathetic.

Even Harvard does better than this. Kids who come from families who make under $60,000 go for free.

The incoming class at the UM in 2011 was 6,496 students, of which 3,893 were Michigan residents and 2,603 were out of state. Tuition is $7,023 and $20,121 per term for in and out of state respectively. A full term of tuition revenues totals $79.7 million dollars and a full year would be approximately $160 million dollars. This means that the UM could have paid the tuition of every freshman with profits from its endowment alone, and not lost a dime.

Now, this scenario is unrealistic, there are four times as many undergraduates as incoming freshman, but you see the point. The UM does not have to ask the exorbitant prices it does merely in return for joining its exclusive, but quality, club (I love UMich, always have, it’s a great school). They could easily drop in-state tuition to a quarter of what it is and bring it down to the price it was when I went, which any kid could make washing dishes for a summer. Loans would become moot.

This, however, is not on Mary Sue Coleman’s to do list. She’s too busy busting unions and serving a compensated position with Johnson and Johnson to be worried about the exploding costs of tuition.

Occupy Ann Arbor, Nurses and the Smearing of the Occupy Movements

Occupy Ann Arbor

I was on my way back to my car yesterday and accidentally showed up to an “Occupy” demonstration in Liberty Park, though I suspect that everyone went home by now.The demonstration turned out to be sponsored by the local nurses union, who are unable to negotiate a favorable contract with the University of Michigan.

The U of M and the the Michigan Nurses Association have been negotiating a new contract since April. The U wants to increase the amount that employees pay for health insurance, limit overtime, reduce paid time off and increase the patient to nurse ratio. Essentially, the U wants nurses at the UMHS to take a pay cut and do more work.

Apparently, the University can drag on these discussions as long as it likes. It doesn’t look like the nurses will be striking anytime soon, though it appears that the hospital is already making plans to truck in scabs if it has to. I learned that there is such a thing as a “travelling nurse,” or a temp nurse that floats through different hospitals all across the country. Wages are apparently considerably lower for travelling nurses and the hospitals need make no long term commitment.

Business at the hospital is up, costs of procedures are up though administrator salaries are up and the recent wave of building are likely draining funds. It’s too much though to ask the person responsible for your medications to take a pay cut, though. In true Michigan style, however, the people at the top put their priorities over those at the bottom.

Much has been made recently from the right over the “crybabies” of the “Occupy” demonstrations around the country. As the unions, such as the Michigan Nurses Association, and established political advocates become involved however, what were young “crybabies” have been replaced by those who have long been fed up with the imbalance of power in this country, but have been able to draw little media attention. Jeffrey Sachs and giants such as Joe Stiglitz barely register a blip on the media’s radar, preferring to give us interviews with barely literatem, unbathed hippies.

The media (where’s the liberal media when you need them?) and rightist cynics, however, will continue to paint the as yet loose movement as freaks, spoiled kids, the insane, drug users and idiots. It’s quite similar to what happened to the early Tea Partiers. Even NPR has taken to hand-picking the bozos and featuring them on their programs leading me to question who the real enemy is: Fox News or Dick Gordon?

Granted, both groups have their loons. The sight of people on disability, social security and medicare calling for the abolition of government entitlement programs is perplexing to say the least. Add to that the multitudes of misspelled signs espousing English only education and a host of neo-racist sound bites, and one can either conclude that these people are stupid or perhaps just a bit insane.

However, the loons overshadow those who can honestly and civilly make a point. Let all of us, in whatever political camp we reside in, never forget the the true enemy is the loss of the ability to discuss our differences in a civil manner. Most of us have more in common than we think.

Plants of Michigan

I’m behind on blogging because my life right now consists of hauling garbage all over Washtenaw County, but I had some time at least to enjoy the Michigan summer.

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