Higher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Adjuncts, Unions and the Sad Tale of Margaret Mary Vojtko

Many of you may have read this article about Margaret Mary Vojtko in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when it first started circulating on social networks late this past summer. For those that didn’t, here is her story as related by Daniel Kovalik: Vojtko was an adjunct professor in the French department at Duquesne University for 25 years, teaching a full course load with no health care or retirement benefits. While being treated for cancer at the age of 83, Duquesne reduced her course-load to a single class, causing her to fall into abject poverty. Unable even to afford heating her house for the winter, she spent nights in a 24-hour café and slept in her shared office. The university then decided to let her go without severance or pension (to which, as a yearly contract worker, she was not entitled). She died not long after of a heart attack while walking home from a bus stop.

Vojtko’s story was widely shared among graduate students, adjuncts, and other academics, even spawning the Twitter hashtag, #IamMargaretMary, that was used by other adjuncts facing economic hardship. She quickly became the face of the plight of adjunct faculty across the US, and a cautionary tale for an academic system that relies ever more on contract labour to fulfill its teaching obligations. Vojtko’s fate led many to wonder if something similar was in store for the current generation of PhDs, many of whom are already on public assistance as they try to cobble together a living wage through adjunct work.

As we learned today, the reality of Vojtko’s situation differed rather considerably from the picture Kovalik painted in his much-shared article. Many of Vojtko’s problems seemed to stem from underlying mental illness: her hoarding behaviour made it impossible for her to rent out or maintain the two properties she inherited, and was probably the primary reason she refused help from friends and family. She never finished her PhD, which was the primary roadblock preventing her progress on the academic ladder. She was, in all likelihood, no longer able to carry out her duties effectively by the time she was let go. But we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this; it is often the case that stories like these, where a single person comes to stand for a much larger problem, are much more complex than the initial picture presented to the public.

The central message of Vojtko’s story remains more or less unchanged. Margaret Mary Vojtko’s many problems were only exacerbated by a lifetime working for low wages and no benefits. While she was a Medicare beneficiary for the last decades of her life, it is possible that access to better health care through employer insurance might have allowed her to receive psychiatric treatment before those problems got out of hand. With better pay and a pension, she might even have been able to retire. What she and her fellow adjuncts needed was a union: unionized adjuncts earn 25% more on average than adjuncts at comparable schools, and some even receive benefits.

Not long before she died, Vojtko–along with the majority of Duquesne’s adjunct faculty–voted to unionize and affiliate with the United Steelworkers Union (an organization of which Vojtko, the daughter of a union steelworker, ardently supported). Duquesne, a Catholic university, continues to fight the collective bargaining for its adjunct labour force, even going so far as to claim a religious exemption. Calling this slimy doesn’t even begin to describe it–the Church is officially pro-union, but anything to save a buck I guess.

I count myself very lucky to work at a Canadian institution; even before our adjuncts unionized our per-course compensation was nearly twice the US average, and health coverage is not an issue. Which leads me to my question today (see, there is one after all!):

Do you teach at (or attend) a school with a large adjunct workforce? Are they unionized? With the adjunct project and other initiatives, do you think things will be getting better?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

Featured image: Harper’s Weekly depicting the Homestead Steel Strike, one of the topics of Vojtko’s unfinished dissertation. Credit: Library of Congress.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. November 21, 2013 at 10:18 am —

    I work as an adjunct as well, in Costa Rica. Here the case is similar as in Canada, as healthcare isn’t a problem, though salaries are much lower even than those in the US, but they’re enough to get by pretty well. And we don’t need to heat our houses, which is a plus too. The problem here is that we get no pay for about 3 months per year, since our contracts last only through the teaching periods, and that means you spend your savings during your unpaid vacations (or unemployed periods actually).

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