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(Cross posted at the Makeshift Academic)

Slate's LV Anderson has a really thoughtful and well-researched piece up on the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of recently dismissed Duquense adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko. Vojtko's death became a national story when Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers Union, wrote an op-ed about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggesting that the university's treatment of its adjuncts and its demoting of Vojtko (and non-renewal of her contract) played a large role in her desperate situation

Anderson chronicles the Duquense administration's attempts to aggressively block an adjunct union drive, by suing to overturn an National Labor Relations Boad-administered election in which 85 percent of adjuncts voted for a union. However, she also raises legitimate questions about whether a union could have averted Vojtko's personal tragedy.

I think the structure of a contract probably could have helped some, though it possibly might not have prevented Vojtko's untimely death or helped her accept support to treat her likely hoarding tendencies.

Most labor contracts implement mandatory evaluation points for promotion/ or retention protections and a series of steps called progressive discipline for long-term workers who need to improve. The idea is that managers need to have a right to manage, workers need to have fair treatment and due process. Negotiating a labor contract ensures that both sides have a say and recourse in the matter.

One object of the evaluations and discipline process is for a worker to get useful objective feedback about her performance on a routine basis and given opportunities to improve if she's not meeting standards. Steadily increasing sanctions avoid arbitrary discipline or  at least provide contractually agreed upon discipline. Guidance and support should help a worker improve, or get treatment if necessary -- which is often helpful for employees who are battling addiction or other mental illnesses.

The process also provides worker protections: a clear, transparent grievance process would give the worker the chance to both productively discuss issues with her supervisor and confront them in a legally binding process if necessary, avoiding the clunky and slow appeal to the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission Vojtko was pursuing when she died.

So instead of arbitrarily kicking her out and cutting her workload, Vojtko's supervisor could have instituted a formally agreed upon procedure, provided warnings and kick-started the evaluation process. Vojtko would have had representation, protection and retained much of her dignity in the proceedings. She also have the ability to keep administrators in line with the ability to file a grievance.

Additionally instead of ad-hoc attempts to help from various faculty, a clear process established by a mutually agreed upon contract and (hopefully good) working relationship would have been in place to determine precisely what support the college needed to provide.

In short, under a labor contract, managers would have guidance on and the ability to manage, and workers would have representation and access to protections and support.

And note how this entire discussion also omits the higher wages and better health insurance that union contracts often bring, both of which might have eased Vojtko's stress over paying for her cancer treatments and helped her get treatment for her hoarding tendencies.

I think it most certainly could have made a difference.


I should note that Anderson's article really gets at who Vojtko was as a person. Anderson doesn't lionize her as part of a cause, or engage in victim-blaming. It's wonderful chronicling, excellent storytelling and respectful to the many facets of Vojtko's life and her complicated situation.

Additionally, see Anderson's work on adjunct working conditions and options here. Slate, give this women a raise already.

Finally, kudos to Duquesne's student paper for first reporting on the story and hinting at some of the deeper issues surrounding Voktjo's dismissal and death. It's tough for novice reporters to handle a story like this, and they succeeded as well as anyone could expect them to do so -- especially with defensive administrators likely staring over their shoulders.

Originally posted to Fake Irishman on Wed Nov 20, 2013 at 08:00 AM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Probably not (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Colleges are cutting costs and one way is to use adjuncts at cheap wages instead of more costly professors. Some end up teaching multiple courses at multiple schools and still have a tough time making ends meet. It is a very difficult job market and many people choose a different career path because only a very few are actually chosen to be professors.

    •  Not sure what the point is here. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Unions have been shown to raise Adjunct wages and benefits substantially -- certainly at the schools I have been at.  

      The question here is whether a union structure would have been able to save this particular adjunct's job or life. The evidence there is more mixed.

      •  The point is that her earnings (0+ / 0-)

        were always going to be low even if there was a union. And the evidence is truly mixed since offers of aid and assistance were not accepted.  So no, a unionized workforce would not have made a difference to this one person. A union does not protect those that are given negative reviews or do not change with technology.  This one individual needed much help in the form of mental  health services.

        •  I agree that evidence was mixed... (0+ / 0-)

          but I wasn't arguing that a union would have fixed everything --- I'm suggesting that it might have helped at some key points in the process, and a formal discipline procedure, instead of an ad-hoc one, might have been able to get her better help.

  •  I think that there's (6+ / 0-)

    a much larger degree of applicability of the hiring hall model used in the building trades to adjuncts than most people would think.  There's a huge power differential between adjunct and employer.  Organizing adjuncts would shrink that, and put a focus on certification which is a large part of how the skilled trades are able to win pr battles that other unions lose.  You want the person wiring your house to know to actually wire a circuit.  In the long term, paying electricians more with the upside of less houses burning down is cheaper.  

    Universities face a real problem in that there are real qualification gaps that exist when looking at adjuncts. Many simply lack teaching skills. (This problem is not limited to adjuncts by any means, it applies to tenured faculty as well)  An adjunct organization that certifies teaching skills would be very hard for universities to fight, unless they want to admit that they are willing to offer subpar education to save money. (for their own salaries)

    An adjunct organization of this sort would benefit members in several ways:

    1) There would inevitably be some shrinkage in the pool of available adjuncts, as those who lack teaching skills are forced out. (A large number of these are undoubtedly people for whom adjuncting is a part-time gig in addition to their full time job elsewhere.)

    2) It would set up the groundwork for a hiring hall system which could would lessen the potential for universities which do offer something approximating a prevailing wage to adjuncts to be undercut by universities slashing adjunct pay to below the minimum wage.

    3) It would provide the legal structure around which a VEBA could be organized to provide the sorts of benefits expected from an employer when you have adjuncts employed by multiple employers.

    by ManfromMiddletown on Wed Nov 20, 2013 at 08:43:13 AM PST

    •  Interesting (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dom Segundo, Ojibwa

      Not sure I agree with everything you've said here, but this comment provides a lot thoughtful ideas to chew on -- thanks for that. Comment rec'd

      •  Right (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ojibwa, sillycarrot

        Even before I was a wee sprout of a scientist there was an hysterical tussle in the professional community as to whether there was a desperate shortage or unsustainable glut in technically trained workers.

        So that was a political/economic battle, not an educational battle.

        BBut I have to say that we as a nation started investing in technical excellence under the lash of Sputnic and stopped investing after the Apollo program showed us to be the top dog.  Henry Slaw and Willard Gibbs were isolated flashes of brilliance, and the atom bomb was conveniently handed to us by refugees from the Worstest Gum'int EVah.

        So we once had the best educational system in the world, and all we had to do was make a minimal investment in keeping it the best, but we elected to starve the beast to the point that our university system can no longer afford to reproduce itself.

        The moment you pick up the clay you become a demiurge, and he who embarks on the creation of worlds is already tainted with corruption and evil. (-8.7,-9.3)

        by Dom Segundo on Wed Nov 20, 2013 at 10:45:17 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  This story insults her memory. (0+ / 0-)

    Ms. Vojtko was a lot of things in her life, but her posthumous friends are determined to make her into something pathetic, because it suits their agenda.  

    My comments are coming from a place of love.

    by Rich in PA on Wed Nov 20, 2013 at 10:57:04 AM PST

  •  Not for adjuncts it doesn't (0+ / 0-)

    As an adjunct, I am covered in the faculty union contract -- and have just signed on as an official union member instead of just paying the "agency fee."

    But adjuncts have NO contractual guarantee of ongoing employment, no grievance process, nothing. It's the nature of adjunct-hood, no different from any other contractual or contingent 15-week job. You are hired for one semester at a time, and if they no longer need you, or don't like your body odor, or whatever, you won't get invited back for the next semester. And the college has no obligation to you in terms of support, accommodation for elderly/disabled faculty, etc. etc. etc.

    And "good health insurance" is elusive (we have access, but it's expensive for us -- ACA is much better option for me). More to the point, it's basically irrelevant to someone who had been on Medicare for 20 years at the time of her death.

    The issues around adjunct working conditions and pay are important ones, and yes, unions make a big difference. But this woman is not a good poster child for any of that, and I'm getting tired of seeing yet more articles about her. I'd much rather they covered my colleagues in their 30s and 40s, some with PhDs, who are raising families by teaching 7 classes a semester at 3 different institutions, with no job security, no office other than their car, and no benefits.

    •  Fair enough (0+ / 0-)

      I do have a few quibbles with your statements that "adjuncts have no contractual guarantee of ongoing employment" With some unions they do. It all depends of what your unit can get in the bargaining process. I know that the University of Michigan's adjuncts (at all three UM campuses, not just Ann Arbor) get at least one-year contracts, which can be extended to three-year contracts as they accumulate seniority and pass reviews. They have also negotiated office space and a grievance process, as well as health benefits.

      My argument here isn't so much that a union would have fixed everything for Wojtko, but that a good contract would have jump started a formal process that might, -- might -- have been able to pinpoint problems earlier and get her some help.

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