This spring, I sat in a meeting with administrators and a senior staff member—very powerful—who has decision-making power over budgets.  As the consultant, I defined the vision of a writing center aimed at helping urban public school graduates bridge the gap between the worth of their diplomas and the actual requirements of college or the professional world.   Naturally, this writing center required skilled and compassionate tutors—and I had exactly the perfect team in mind:  the guys who had worked with me at WREC—an apt acronym for the urban school in which we had worked.

While there, we cut through every obstacle—broken escalators, locked doors, frustrated teachers, hapless administrators—to deliver to the kids.  And we did it—we helped those kids in over 1400 individual tutoring sessions over the course of the academic year.  As they would say, we rocked the house!

I knew these guys would deliver, that we would, once again, make a profound difference for these students.  I was furious when I read the contract: the institution wanted to pay my tutors a low wage for a few hours during the most inconvenient times.  They wanted the guys to tutor students in groups.  As an educator, I knew this would not work for the students, and marshaled my arguments to demonstrate students worked best with tutors in individual, half-hour, scheduled meetings.  But as the point person for my guys—MY guys!  I was outraged.

At this meeting, I was prepared.  Ticking points off my fingers, I argued passionately for a writing center that would function the way I knew a real writing center could work:  half hour scheduled appointments, essay requirements of revision, and superb tutors.  And those tutors needed more hours—28 instead of 15—and higher wages—$15 an hour instead of $13.  I got it.  I was happy that we would be together, happy we would help kids, happy I could get them something in this “dreadful economy.”

However, I think “dreadful economy” is a misnomer for what is really happening.  What is really happening is the cumulative effect of 40 years of deregulating markets, dismantling of labor laws and labor protections, outsourcing of jobs, and repetitive changes in laws to make it easier for corporations:  to wit, I remember when an “independent contractor” was someone who actually performed most of their work off the site of the business with whom the contract was made.   Then, independent contractor morphed into a person who worked on site: it meant hiring people without having to provide benefits, unemployment insurance, or social security payments, but their earnings were set at a higher scale to compensate for the absence of benefits.

But now, independent contractor means the individuals works on site, they do not have benefits or access to unemployment benefits, labor laws do not protect them (not that they protect much anyway), job security is non-existent, and the wage does not compensate for those missing benefits.  There is no holiday pay, sick days, insurance benefits, or access to unemployment benefits.   And that’s what I got for my guys—independent contracts.  I don’t like it, not at all.  I did the best I could within the system in which I have to operate.  But I am outraged at this treatment of these dedicated, educated and inherently decent young men.  I know this situation serves as a microcosm for what is going on across the country.  We have become a country that initially underfunded services and support for children—now we underfund our young adults as they try to make their way in an increasingly fragmented and unstable employment world.  And they do not have the long view I have; they do not remember that laws used to protect the people from unsavory corporate practices; they do not know the government is supposed to play the 800-pound gorilla that fights for the people.  Now we have government that has slowly become an 900-pound gorilla on the side of the corporations it was designed to balance.  My heart grieves and seethes for this injustice.

When they revolt, and I pray they do—all the young men and young women—I hope they ask me to join them.

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