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Death of An Adjunct, Or Why We (Still) Need Unions

by Abby Zimet

Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, died a few weeks ago. Almost destitute, she had been struggling to live on under $10,000 a year, undergoing cancer treatment without health insurance, working a night shift at Eat 'n Park as a second job, sometimes sleeping in an office because she couldn't afford to fix her furnace or pay for her electricity, distraught when her regular job's hours were cut with no severance or retirement and, finally, ignobly, buried in a cardboard casket without handles - that, despite having taught French for 25 years at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, a Catholic school whose mission is to "serve God by serving students...through commitment to excellence in education...profound concern for moral and spiritual values and service to the Church (and) the community. Duquesne is also one of three Catholic schools now fighting a union battle - in its case, appealing last year's 50-9 vote by adjunct professors to join an Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers.

Adjunct - non-tenured and often part-time - professors make up over half of all university faculty nationwide. Those million or so "throwaway citizens," making  Mcwages that equal about a third of their tenured colleagues, get no health care or other benefits, have no job security and often take second jobs - for one, stacking shelves at Trader Joe's - to make ends meet. Increasingly, they are looking to unionize, and being fought every step of the way by well-paid administrators of lush  colleges charging inflated tuitions. Although Duquesne had initially agreed to abide by the results of their union election, they later appealed to the NLRB, arguing its status as a "religious" school should exempt it - thus arguing, notes one critic, that it's too Catholic for government rules but not Catholic enough to follow its own teachings.

After Vojtko died, responding to criticism of how the school had treated her,  Duquesne's Chaplain said that the school had invited her to live in one of their communities, and priests regularly visited and prayed with her. In other words, notes a union lawyer who wrote an impassioned op-ed about her life and death, “In lieu of a living wage and benefits, they offered her intermittent charity and prayers as a salve to her impoverishment.”

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels... For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...I was a stranger and you did not invite me in...Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ - Matthew 25:31-46

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