by Zoltan Zigedy
A few months ago a Pittsburgh labor attorney and human rights activist, Dan Kovalik, penned an op-ed piece for a Western Pennsylvania daily, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kovalik took up the case of an elderly adjunct professor at a local private university who died virtually penniless, with insecure shelter, and with tenuous health care.
In the several hundred words allowed him, Kovalik brought forward Margaret Mary Vojtko’s struggle to eke out a living from the meager salaries offered by adjunct university and college teaching employment. Kovalik made no effort to disguise his own solution: he noted that he met Vojtko in the midst of a union organizing campaign, a campaign which promised some relief from the poverty level wages and absent benefits provided by the well-endowed university.
To probably everyone’s surprise, Kovalik’s account sparked an enormous burst of commentary and interest in the cause of highly educated, but poorly paid university teachers. Other adjuncts realized that their plight was not uncommon, but shared by thousands working in academic institutions throughout the US. The story of Margaret Mary’s tragic demise lifted spirits and provoked anger.
Predictably, the Pittsburgh institution that employed Vojtko, Duquesne University, mounted a feeble, but loud defense. Nonetheless, Kovalik’s article pressed school administrators to bargain with the union and imparted meaning to a senseless tragedy. In the hard-hitting and noble tradition of muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Stephens, and Ida B. Wells, Kovalik offered Vojtko’s story as a case study in the plight of thousands of underpaid and exploited college and university level teachers.
Unfortunately, the valuable muck-raking tradition, like whistle blowing, is considered bad sport in the age of stifling corporate journalism and rampant toadyism. Extremely rare socially relevant journalism is either accidental journalism or revelation wrapped in scandal, smut, or corruption. Today’s young journalist with an eye to a career understands that entertainment metrics trump shaking a fist to power, that “reality” voyeurism titillates the passive reader, and that ferreting out injustice doesn’t pay.
In that vein, Slate magazine, a journal that appeals to middle-class social liberalism, unleashed an assistant editor, L. V. Anderson, to doggedly dig up the real story of Margaret Mary Vojtko (Death of a Professor, 11-17-2013). Undoubtedly Slate’s founder, Michael Kinsley, an old Cold Warrior transformed into a leading spokesperson for post-Reagan liberalism, could smell a radical message in the Kovalik article.
The subversive Kovalik was actually suggesting that institutions owed a decent living to their employees! He had the audacity to imply that some employees– those without trust funds– actually depend upon their employers for their survival! Such a view offends the sensibilities of our betters who are confident of the many charities and helping hands that are always there for the asking.
Dutiful to her assignment, Anderson visited Pittsburgh on a mission: Kovalik’s not-so-subtle implication was that if Duquesne had negotiated, Vojtko might not have died the way she did…
But was that true? Who was Margaret Mary—the person, not the symbol of victimhood?
Through a journey of several thousand words, Anderson familiarized us with personal details of Vojtko’s life– a veritable made-for-TV reality exposé– cobbled together from interviews with people who have no fear of contradiction or explanation from the dead. She shares with the reader idiosyncrasies, hardships, and foibles that are embedded in every life, but only deemed relevant in our era of embarrassing mass titillation.
We learn that an eighty-three-year-old woman is untidy, forgetful, rigid in her views, mistrustful, and doggedly independent. How these personal attributes bear on her treatment by Duquesne University is left unexplained; how many of us share these personal “flaws” is never addressed. But the not-too-subtle point is that Vojtko could have fared better if she would only have shed her stubbornness and accepted the help that many claim was there.
Undoubtedly that view is held by those who obstinately refuse to accept any responsibility for the behavior of institutions that dominate our lives. Their indifference to the casualties wrought by banks, corporations, insurance companies, universities, military, and government agencies leave millions of Margaret Mary Vojtkos to the not-so-tender mercies of these institutions.
After six thousand tedious words of the minutia and trivia of Vojtko’s life, one may be convinced by Anderson that a human life is indeed complex:
The story I uncovered was more complicated than the story that went viral. The reasons Vojtko’s life ended in misery had much less to do with her status as an adjunct professor than tweeters… might believe.
To be fair to the university, though, better benefits and job security would not have altered many of the personal factors that precipitated Vojtko’s crisis. Her hoarding and her deep-seated stubbornness—not her finances—were behind her refusal to get her furnace fixed, or to move to a facility better suited to her medical condition.
To be fair?
To be fair, Anderson would have interviewed any of the thousands of working class retirees living in Western Pennsylvania who would have told her that Vojtko’s “stubbornness” was pride– a pride born of the belief that when a man or woman works hard all of his or her life, he or she should have a measure of benefits and security without begging or accepting charity. Anderson would understand that motives, like lives, are complex even for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
As do many other workers, Votjko valued her dignity, privacy, and independence. They were not easily surrendered to accept charity or even well-meant help. Those with a finely honed sense of justice are not quick to trade it for the work house or the charity ward, even in its modern incarnations.
It’s a pity that those values are neither understood nor shared by Anderson. When a hundred years ago Upton Sinclair wrote of the workers exploited by the meat packing industry, he undoubtedly knew that many were flawed in character or values. But presenting them in all of their “multidimensional” character, revealing their weaknesses, or pandering to gossip was of little interest to him. Instead, he wrote of the horrific working conditions, brutality, and misery brought on by the industry. He chose to take the side of the weak over the strong.
Today, inequality has reached the extremes of Sinclair’s time, yet most of our media chroniclers deliberately ignore the damaged lives, shattered hopes, and even premature deaths spawned by inequality. Turning away from these ugly facts, they — like L. V. Anderson — offer casual, flippant bromides: pick up the phone and call for help! As our political leaders work diligently to disassemble the social securities protecting the poor and needy, more and more of our neighbors face the choice of relying on goodwill or accepting a shattered life.
We should be grateful that there are writers like Dan Kovalik who speak out against these outrages.
November 23, 2013