Adjunct Professor’s Death Sparks Outrage, Including at USW

By R.J. Hufnagel

USW@Work Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH —The death of dedicated Duquesne University French professor and Steelworkers supporter Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, has sparked outrage on the university’s Pittsburgh campus and in the surrounding area.

That’s because Vojtko, despite a consistently heavy workload, her advanced degree and her 25 years at the school, was still considered “part time,” an adjunct professor with low pay and no benefits.

Meanwhile, Duquesne, a Catholic institution, says the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion bars faculty from unionizing with the USW, and going to bat for professors like her.  The university took its case against the union organizing of faculty to the National Labor Relations Board.

Vojtko, a supporter of the USW-affiliated Adjunct Faculty Association that successfully won a recognition vote among the adjunct, non-tenured professors at Duquesne, died in September while living in poverty – and after the university informed her last summer that she would not be retained for the fall semester.

Her story, told in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, quickly went viral, generating more than 70,000 mentions in social media, more than a dozen letters to the editor and follow-up articles in the newspaper, along with thousands of outraged comments from readers across the globe.  Other news outlets, including CNN, National Public Radio, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Huffington Post also covered it.

Most readers expressed shock that any worker could be left with nothing after so many years of service.  Yet despite her years at Duquesne, her advanced degree and the workload, part-time adjunct professor Vojtko only received a salary of about $3,000 per course she taught, with no benefits, retirement plan, or severance pay.

Adjunct faculty nationwide suffer the same effects of lack of union protection, often teaching late at night to put together enough courses to earn money to live on, or driving from school to school to lecture – and all without benefits or pensions.

The abrupt loss of her job after more than a quarter of a century at Duquesne was more than Vojtko could handle, wrote her friend, USW attorney Dan Kovalik.

“Living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack” and died two weeks later, he added.  “Margaret Mary was laid out in a simple cardboard casket, an honest example of what she had been reduced to by her ostensibly Catholic employer.”

Stories of Vojtko’s death led to a series of national news stories about the plight of adjunct professors, whom USW and other unions are trying to organize.  Most work for near-poverty wages with no job security, no benefits, and no retirement.  Adjuncts once supplemented the work of full-time professors, but that has changed: Now only about 30% of college and university faculty are full-time employees.

At Duquesne, the inequality is stark: Adjunct instructors, limited to two courses per semester, typically earn about $14,000 a year – less than one-third of what full-time non-tenured faculty earn there.  Meanwhile, Duquesne’s president takes home an annual salary of almost $700,000 yearly.

The best way to fix the problem is through union activism, says adjunct professor Robin Sowards, who was instrumental in organizing his Duquesne colleagues.

“It is the faculty, not the administrators, who have devoted their lives to the educational purpose of the institution, and they should have a powerful voice in how the institution runs.  The only feasible way of preventing these tragedies in the future is for faculty to organize strong, democracy unions alongside other workers,” he explained.

A year ago, adjunct professors at Duquesne voted 85%-15% to unionize with USW.  After initially agreeing to recognize the union, Duquesne reversed course.

Joined by other religiously sponsored universities – including the association representing all U.S. Catholic colleges – Duquesne told the board the university should be exempt from U.S. labor laws due to its religious status and the Constitution.

Duquesne appealed a regional NLRB office’s ruling in the union’s favor.  Another Catholic college, in Chicago, has made the same constitutional argument against the Service Employees, but in a case involving not its professors, but its janitors.

The Duquesne case is still pending at the board, but critics say Duquesne, precisely because of its Catholic status – and church teachings about the positive value of unions – has an even greater obligation to support its workers’ wishes to unionize.  The SEIU case is also pending before the board.

“As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it, ‘No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.’  We all need to stand together and insist Duquesne’s administration do the right thing,” Sowards concluded.

-PAI

(Reprinted by permission, with additional material from PAI, from USW@Work.)