Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Could a union have prevented this adjunct's death? Maybe not -- but it could have helped.

Slate's LV Anderson has a really thoughtful and well-researched piece up on the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of recently dismissed Duquense adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko.Vojtko's death became a national story when Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers Union, wrote an op-ed about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggesting that the university's treatment of its adjuncts and its demoting of Vojtko (and non-renewal of her contract) played a large role in her desperate situation

Anderson chronicles the Duquense administration's attempts to aggressively block an adjunct union drive, by suing to overturn an National Labor Relations Boad-administered election in which 85 percent of adjuncts voted for a union. However, she also raises legitimate questions about whether a union could have averted Vojtko's personal tragedy.

I think the structure of a contract probably could have helped some, though it possibly might not have prevented Vojtko's untimely death or helped her accept support to treat her likely hoarding tendencies. 

Most labor contracts implement mandatory evaluation points for promotion/ or retention protections and a series of steps called progressive discipline for long-term workers who need to improve. The idea is that managers need to have a right to manage, workers need to have fair treatment and due process. Negotiating a labor contract ensures that both sides have a say and recourse in the matter.

One object of the evaluations and discipline process is for a worker to get useful objective feedback about her performance on a routine basis and given opportunities to improve if she's not meeting standards. Steadily increasing sanctions avoid arbitrary discipline or  at least provide contractually agreed upon discipline. Guidance and support should help a worker improve, or get treatment if necessary -- which is often helpful for employees who are battling addiction or other mental illnesses.

The process also provides worker protections: a clear, transparent grievance process would give the worker the chance to both productively discuss issues with her supervisor and confront them in a legally binding process if necessary, avoiding the clunky and slow appeal to the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission Vojtko was pursuing when she died. 

So instead of arbitrarily kicking her out and cutting her workload, Vojtko's supervisor could have instituted a formally agreed upon procedure, provided warnings and kick-started the evaluation process. Vojtko would have had representation, protection and retained much of her dignity in the proceedings. She also have the ability to keep administrators in line with the ability to file a grievance.

Additionally instead of ad-hoc attempts to help from various faculty, a clear process established by a mutually agreed upon contract and (hopefully good) working relationship would have been in place to determine precisely what support the college needed to provide.

In short, under a labor contract, managers would have guidance on and the ability to manage, and workers would have representation and access to protections and support.

And note how this entire discussion also omits the higher wages and better health insurance that union contracts often bring, both of which might have eased Vojtko's stress over paying for her cancer treatments and helped her get treatment for her hoarding tendencies.

I think it most certainly could have made a difference.


I should note that Anderson's article really gets at who Vojtko was as a person. Anderson doesn't lionize her as part of a cause, or engage in victim-blaming. It's wonderful chronicling, excellent storytelling and respectful to the many facets of Vojtko's life and her complicated situation.

Additionally, see Anderson's work on adjunct working conditions and options here. Slate, give this women a raise already.

Finally, kudos to Duquesne's student paper for first reporting on the story and hinting at some of the deeper issues surrounding Voktjo's dismissal and death. It's tough for novice reporters to handle a story like this, and they succeeded as well as anyone could expect them to do so -- especially with defensive administrators likely staring over their shoulders.

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