National Adjunct Walkout begs reflection on state of US faculty

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Anne Lewis, senior lecturer in the Department of Radio-Television-Film.

With the National Adjunct Walkout taking place Wednesday, I find myself thinking about the basic conditions of my employment — as well as that of thousands of adjuncts in our city.

Through decades as a working artist, I never imagined teaching as a profession aside from the occasional workshop. However, circumstances after I moved away from a Kentucky arts cooperative made it necessary that I find employment. I was offered a job teaching film editing for a semester at the University of Texas at Austin. I found the work inspiring. My colleagues were kind and helpful; most students were eager to learn. I had access to all kinds of technological knowledge thanks to the University staff and became a student myself, auditing classes. And I have never based what I did for a living on how much money I made. As a result, for the past 15 years I have been part of what is known as the “academic precariat,” a clever combination of precarious and proletariat. 

My situation, while better than the typical adjunct who averages $2,987 a course, contains all the associated problems: semester-by-semester employment on an as-needed basis, lack of paid medical benefits, the need for survival strategies during occasional summers and a pay level capping at less than half that of professors teaching the same classes. At times, I even felt as though I was a kind of academic scab, eroding tenure, pay and benefits for my colleagues.

Then an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette written by the general counsel of the United Steelworkers union broke everything open. Margaret Mary Vojtko taught French at Duquesne University. She worked semester by semester with no health benefits for 25 years. Even though many of her students gave her glowing evaluations and she never missed a class, her teaching load was reduced to one class a semester. Her electricity was turned off and she resorted to sleeping in her office. University police were called to eject her. Vojtko died sick, impoverished, disrespected and unemployed Sept. 1, 2013. 

That story hit many of us hard.  The conditions we might have accepted in order to be part of this country’s great universities became a rallying cry for justice. 

Adjuncts, including graduate students, make up 75 percent of college instructors, and our average pay is $25,806 annually.  Seventy-five percent of us don’t get paid health insurance, and few adjuncts participate in faculty governance. Most of us work many more hours than we are paid, a kind of wage theft that makes our hourly wage less than the federal minimum. We have begun to organize across the country in a variety of labor unions and in associations like New Faculty Majority. Next week, thousands of us plan to participate in what the American Federation of Teachers is calling “Adjunct Awareness Week.” 

At UT-Austin, the Texas State Employees Union, TSEU-CWA 1686 plans a teach-in at noon Wednesday in the West Mall free speech area for those adjuncts not teaching at the time and their allies.

There’s one more part to the story about Vojtko. It belongs to Daniel Kovalik, the lawyer with the Steelworkers union who broke the story, and to Jim Hightower, the columnist and activist who wrote about what came after. At the time of Vojtko’s death, adjuncts at Duquesne had already voted overwhelmingly to join the union — that’s the context of Vojtko’s relationship with Kovalik. But the administration at this Catholic school asked for a religious exemption from labor laws, claiming that unionization would in some way prevent the teaching of Catholic values. The progressive president of the USW, Leo Garard, appealed in the name of social justice and human rights, as Hightower says, “not to the courts but to the Pope!“ In this day and age, that should not be necessary.

Lewis is a senior radio-television-film lecturer.