The proletarianization of higher education, according to the associate general counsel of the United Steel Workers Union, has now claimed a life. In a moving op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Daniel Kovalik, wrote this week of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a French teacher at Pittsburgh’s Dusquesne University whose tenure there—though it was, of course, a tenure without tenure—lasted twenty-five years, who just died at the age of 83. Receiving radiation therapy for cancer, living in a house that was nearly collapsing in on itself, and in receipt of a humiliating letter from Adult Protective Services informing her she had been referred to them as not being able to take care of herself, she turned to her union for help, because that is what unions do. Kovalik helped, despite the fact that the Steel Workers did not, officially, represent her: Dusquesne adjuncts had voted overwhelmingly for the USW to represent them a year ago, but the Catholic university has fought the certification of the election tooth and nail ever since, claiming its school’s religious beliefs should exempt it from federal labor laws. “This would be news to Georgetown University—one of only two Catholic universities to make U.S. News & World Report’s list of top twenty-five university—which just recognized its adjunct professors’ union, citing the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, which favor labor unions.”
She called Kovalik in a panic about the letter from Adult Protective Services, and he tried to connect her with a caseworker. “I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Dusquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits”—after twenty-five years of loyal service; something for today’s adjuncts to look forward to, should they decide to stay in the grueling game—“and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.”
I predict in the future caseworkers won’t be so shocked at all. Notes Kovalik, “Margaret Mary 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…. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.” So, soon, if you’re a graduate student and you’re reading this, might you.