Who Let Adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko Die Penniless? Her Employer, Her Union? Her Family, Herself?
by P.D. Lesko
Anytime someone dies it is sad. Margaret Mary Vojtko taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University, a Catholic university whose officials have fought the unionization of its adjunct faculty using the absurd argument that a unionized faculty would interfere with the college’s ability to “inculcate Catholic values among its students.” Georgetown University pointed to the the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, which favor labor unions, when recognizing its own adjunct faculty union’s right to bargain collectively. Ms. Vojtko died on September 1st, as the result of a massive heart attack she’d suffered two weeks before, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She had been let go from her job at Duquesne with, obviously, no severance or pension. Ms. Vojtko had worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. The Internet lit up with blog posts, Tweets and news articles in a variety of publications about the “professor” who died, nearless penniless and homeless.
The Pittsbugh Post-Gazette published a piece that claimed that 83-year-old Margaret Mary had “no health benefits.” That was poor reporting. Perhaps the reporting was flawed because the writer wasn’t a reporter, but rather a man named Daniel Kovalik, the senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union, the union with which the adjunct faculty at Duquesne would like to affiliate.
Of course Margaret Mary had access to health care. She had Medicare. In the United States, Medicare provides health care benefits to about 49 million Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Pennsylvania, where Vojtko lived, 2.3 million residents receive Medicare benefits. After California and Texas, Pennsylvania is the state with the most elderly residents covered by Medicare.
Margaret Mary Vojtko died after 25 years of work at Duquesne University, but my question is this: What job did Margaret Mary Vojtko have before she started working at Duquesne when she was 58-years-old? Her obituary didn’t say. Daniel Kovalik didn’t say. The day after his piece appeared in the Post-Gazette, Vice President for University Advancement John Plante told the student media “there are those in the university who think Kovalik’s story is ‘a reckless attempt’ to exploit Vojtko’s death for self-interest, and those who have “no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances.”
The student media also reported that, “Family and friends said Vojtko could not afford to fix a broken furnace in her home.” This evoked some interesting comments in response to the piece on the Duquesne Student Media site. One person commented: “Family and friends said Vojtko could not afford to fix a broken furnace in her home and frequently spent nights at an Eat n’ Park.” Family and friends??????? Where were they!!!!!! Yeah…let’s demonize the only people who would actually hire this lady.” Another person asks: “Where are her relatives? Nieces or nephews? How could you turn a blind eye when your great aunt had to sleep in the school sofa? It’s sad but seems there is more to this story.” Yet another pointed out the same thing: “Where were her six nieces and nephews in all of this?”
Finally, one commenter expressed the same thoughts that I had after reading about Ms. Vojtko’s death: ”This is a horrible situation all the way around. I am left with a question after reading this and the original article about it – did she not have social security and medicare? Something doesn’t fully add up.”
Something doesn’t fully add up. Whose responsibility is to make sure people do not die in penury? Is it an employer’s responsibility? Is it the government’s responsibility? Is it the individual’s responsibility? I would argue that, at base, Margaret Mary Vojtko was a little like Blanche DuBois, relying on the kindness of strangers to make sure, as she aged, she would be cared for. I’m not condemning the strategy, and certainly she was a woman of an age (1930) when women were expected to get married, have children and, perhaps, work as teachers, nurses or in some other “acceptable” profession.
However, it’s important to realize that Margaret Mary Vojtko was a woman with free will. Regardless, her death is being used as a fable on various news sites and blogs. You see, she was professional and poor.
“Who would ever expect this to happen to a professor?” asks one writer, clearly ignorant of the fact that Margaret Mary Vojtko was a faculty member, not a professor, not even an adjunct professor or a visiting adjunct professor. Titles matter in this case because they describe and define the strict hierarchy that is higher education.
My aunt, born in 1925, got married, had five children and then divorced in 1965. She never remarried. She taught as a substitute teacher in her local school district for many years, but ever the pragmatist, she realized that she needed to plan for her retirement. She wanted to remain independent for as long as possible, much like Margaret Mary Vojtko was reported to have treasured her own independence. My aunt, a high school graduate who’d never graduated from college, studied for a took the civil service exam. She then landed a job working for the Michigan Department of Human Services. This is the job from which she retired. It provides her with the pension on which she currently lives, somewhat unhappily, in a nursing home. She can no longer live alone, and after many decades of independence she is none too happy having to rely on others for help.
Her children help her financially, but not all are in the position to do so on a regular basis. She lives on a fixed income of social security and that modest pension. She has a modest pension because she planned. She did not work a job for 25 years that offered her no benefits and no pension. She worked a civil service job she didn’t particularly enjoy for 25 years because she understood that at 60 she would be able to retire to a small house and have enough money to spend the winters in Florida at a threadbare hotel in St. Pete that rented rooms at $400 per month during the winters.
My aunt loved teaching as a substitute. She adored the intellectual stimulation, her colleagues, the summers off and the flexible schedule. What she ended up with were social services “clients,” many of whom were perfectly genial, and some of whom were utterly manipulative and hell bent on gaming the system, leaving her the option of “catching” them or being fired from her job for negligence. She had a boss, Mr. Flatoe, whom she nicknamed “Frankentoe,” because he was monstrously unkind to his predominantly female staff. Her work stories were hilarious, amusing, poignant, sad and instructional. Above all, one realized that while the federal and state governments had a variety of programs to help citizens have food and shelter in times of need, it was infinitely better to get an education, get a job and plan for one’s “golden years” with infinite care and energy.
Even then, my aunt’s story doesn’t have the happy ending she planned. Margaret Mary Vojtko was remembered for her “pride and her eloquence.” Daniel Kovalik, the Pittsburgh-Gazette editorialist who penned the original piece, told NPR, “She didn’t want charity. She thought that after working 25 years for Duquesne that she was owed a living wage and some sort of retirement and benefits.”
The problem, of course, is that she didn’t earn a living wage and had never been promised any sort of retirement benefits. We should also remember that in the 25 years she taught, none of the higher education unions came to her rescue. Quite the opposite, during that time, the number of adjuncts in higher education rose significantly, and the concept of the “equal percentage raise,” was devised by union leaders in New York and California, a scam to justify keeping unionized adjuncts underpaid by bargaining the same “percentage” raise for full-time and part-time faculty. It’s an exploitative and heinous practice that is allowed to go on unchecked.
Unionization would not have kept Ms. Vojtko from having a heart attack. Neither would unionization have paid her medical bills for her. In his Post-Gazette piece, Mr. Kovalik points out that Ms. Vojtko earned less than $15,000 per year. At United Steelworkers World Headquarters, President Leo Gerard earned $197,128 in 2012, and compared to his salary Margaret Mary Vojtko would have earned a pittance, as well.
Daniel Kovalik told NPR he hopes Duquesne will be “shamed” into allowing adjunct professors to unionize. ”If Margaret Mary can help in that way, she would be very proud.”
In 2012, Mr. Kovalik was paid $133,000. Until it pays better to be represented by a union than to work at one, until unions that represent non-tenured faculty start demanding equal pay for equal work for all of their union members, the Margaret Mary Vojtkos in higher education will continue to be paid poorly and, no doubt, have to combat poverty unless and until they decide that higher education does not value their contributions sufficiently to merit long-term loyalty.
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