By Jim Hightower on June 18, 2014

If one obscure college professor dies, does it make any difference? If you’re Margaret Mary Vojtko, the answer is yes.

Margaret Mary died last summer at age eighty-three, and her death has turned her name into a rallying cry for adjunct college teachers who are seeking justice from their schools.

Vojtko taught French classes for twenty-five years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, earning high marks from her students. Their praise helped make up for Duquesne’s poor pay and lack of respect. Like most teachers there, Margaret Mary was part of the adjunct faculty—a group that now teaches more than half of all U.S. college courses, yet has no tenure or bargaining power, thus allowing schools like Duquesne to take advantage of them. And, boy, do they ever!

As with other adjuncts, Professor Vojtko was unsalaried. She was paid a low rate for each course she taught. This provided no reliable income, for she was never told until just before a semester began whether she’d be teaching three classes, one, or none. Even in good years with full teaching loads, her pay was below $25,000—with zero health care benefits.

Margaret Mary’s last year was certainly not a good one. Duquesne had cut her to one class per semester, reducing her income to under $10,000. Also, her cancer returned, piling huge medical bills on her back. With no savings or university pension, she’d become so pauperized that she couldn’t pay her electric bill, effectively making her homeless that winter. Her stress level was off the charts, yet she never missed a day of class. Until last spring, that is. That’s when Duquesne let her go.

On September 1, this proud professional educator was found sprawled on her front lawn, having suffered a massive heart attack. She died penniless, jobless, and literally heartbroken, having been thrown away by the university that had used her for twenty-five years.

Her story would be unknown—except for Daniel Kovalik. A lawyer with the United Steelworkers, Daniel knew Margaret Mary through his union’s drive to help adjunct teachers organize for better pay and treatment. He wrote up her story, telling how Duquesne had let her spiral into abject poverty, then they coldly discarded her—no severance, no good-byes, no nothing.

Impoverished, abandoned, scared, and stressed to the limit, her heart exploded shortly afterward.

Yet, in death Margaret Mary is more alive than ever.

Kovalik’s poignant piece swept through the Internet, striking a chord with adjunct teachers everywhere. They see that their own low-wage position could put them in the same downward spin it did for her. So Margaret Mary’s story is being told all across the country, energizing organizing campaigns to empower and lift up these hard-hit university teachers.

To Duquesne officials, Margaret Mary was “just an adjunct.” But to adjuncts everywhere, she’s become an emblem—both of their plight and of their fight for labor rights.

In a case of beautiful irony, one of their strongest campaigns is taking place at Duquesne. Adjuncts there have already voted to join the Steelworkers’ union, but the domineering masters of this Catholic school are resorting to devious, legalistic ploys to deny simple justice for their faculty. Bizarrely, they’ve even demanded a religious exemption from our labor laws, claiming that unionization would interfere with their teaching of Catholic values!

Steelworkers’ president Leo Gerard promptly filed an appeal to that claim. Not to the labor department or the courts, but to the pope! And to make his case that Pope Francis should speak out on this issue of social justice, Gerard pointed to the recent lament by the Pontiff himself about today’s “throwaway culture.” Then he told Francis the story of Margaret Mary.

So in death, she met the pope. And she's still making a difference.

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Comments

Wake up America; the rich are controlling this country, and no one is free, and there is no justice. We the people must ban together and stop these evil ones, that have no concept of justice, humanity, or our right to life, liberty or the presute of happiness.
allknowing. the problem is that those rich folks manage to convince enough of us citizens that they are right. Or, more importantly, that their opponents are wrong! We are an amazingly partisan culture (here in the USA), where every aspect of civil discourse has been turned into a political issue. Sadly, this is how it is going to be here from now on. Nothing is going to get done; not while we have a 2-party system.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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