Unethical Academia: The Next Front for Low-Wage Worker Uprising?

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“Recently, the tragic story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a longtime contingent faculty member at Duquesne University who died after suffering a heart attack, went viral. Although she had taught at Duquesne for 25 years, it was reported that Vojtko died nearly penniless and without health benefits: she had spent years working as an adjunct professor paid by the course. Sadly, Margaret Mary Vojtko’s situation is not uncommon. Academia, like the rest of American economy, has seen an explosive growth of low-wage precarious employment in recent years.

In 2009, three out of every four faculty members at two- and four-year academic institutions were contingent workers, according to a report released last year by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. The majority of these academic workers earned an average wage of $2,700 for a three credit course in 2010. That meant they barely made the minimum wage for each hour of their work.

Since 2009, the number of contingent workers in academia has only grown. According to John Curtis of the AAUP, the most recent estimate (from 2011) is that 1.4 million academic workers hold contingent positions off the tenure track. That’s equivalent to the number of low-wage workers at Walmart, the nation’s largest low-wage employer,which also has 1.4 million employees in this country making less than $10 per hour. Higher education, once the surest gateway to the American middle class, is now contributing to the development of an unsustainable economy of low-wage jobs.

Adjuncts have found it difficult to organize to change their conditions. They often work for a myriad of distinct employers and rarely even know their coworkers. Then there is employer resistance. In the case of Duquesne, university administrators refused last year to recognize a vote in which their contingent faculty overwhelmingly decided to form a union. They appealed the union election to the National Labor Relations Board contending that their Catholic affiliation exempts them from having to bargain with unions. A century of Catholic social teaching endorsing the right to bargain collectively would seem to make hash of Duquesne’s contention, but that hasn’t stopped two other Catholic affiliated campus —Manhattan College and St. Xavier University — from taking the same stand. Now, other religious institutions, including Pacific Lutheran, are following Duquesne’s lead.

(Click here to sign Interfaith Worker Justice’s petition calling on Dusquesne, Manhattan, St. Xavier, and Pacific Lutheran, to end their campaign against academic workers.)

But the tide may be turning for low-wage workers, including those in academia…”

Click Here to Continue Reading.

(Huffington Post, October 17th, 2013 | Co-authored with Prof. Maria Maisto and Prof. Joseph McCartin)

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