US Catholic Faith in Real Life

In adjunct professors' fight for fair wages, whose side is the church on?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

You may have heard the story in recent months of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died in September at the age of 83. Vojtko was at the time of her death living in extreme poverty, nearly homeless because she couldn't afford repairs to her residence, and battling cancer. She was under immense stress, as many in poverty often are, and it was a massive heart attack that caused her death.

The reason Vojtko's story has been in the news is that she's far from the stereotype that some people associate with "the poor." She worked for 25 years as a university professor, but as an adjunct she received no health insurance benefits, no job security, and no severence package or retirement benefits when she was let go. You might say that she should have done a better job saving her money, but according to her friend Daniel Kovalik, Vojtko's peak earnings never surpassed $25,000 a year, even when teaching a full load of three courses per semester and two in the summer. In other words, Vojtko was hardworking, well educated, and in a respected profession, yet still couldn't make ends meet.

What makes matters worse is that Vojtko taught at Duquesne University, a Catholic institution in Pittsburgh. Her death is just one chapter in the battle between adjuncts and the university over the right to unionize in hopes of receiving a living wage for their work. But Catholic schools like Duquesne, Manhattan College in New York, and St. Xavier University in Chicago have fought efforts of adjunct professors to unionize by claiming that their status as Catholic institutions makes them exempt from National Labor Relations Board oversight. (Georgetown University, which allowed its adjuncts to unionize earlier this year, is a notable exception.)

Vojtko's tragic story has made the issue of adjunct unions a hot topic of debate, and it has led to the creation of an online petition by former Duquesne adjunct Joshua Zelesnick calling for the university to recognize an adjunct union. At the time of this writing, the petition had more than 17,000 signatures. As Zelesnick argues, although students pay more than $30,000 a year in tuition and several administrators and sports coaches have six-figure salaries, many adjuncts only make $14,000 a year.

This would seem to be at odds with the U.S. Catholic bishops' call for protection of the dignity of workers and the protection of the poor and vulnerable, not to mention their support of unions. As the bishops wrote in their 2013 Labor Day statement:

"Since the end of the Civil War, unions have been an important part of our economy because they provide protections for workers and more importantly a way for workers to participate in company decisions that affect them. Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed the right of workers to choose to form a union. ...The Church, in accord with her principles on the life and dignity of the human person, wishes to collaborate with unions in securing the rights and dignity of workers."

Though unions might not always be perfect, the rights and dignity of workers should always be a priority of the church. That's been the message of the bishops and several popes, and one would think it would be an important consideration for employers who proudly proclaim their Catholic identity.