Precarity or Solidarity: When Lives Are on the Line, Which World Do You Want?

Last week, Kutztown University faculty were greeting with the disturbing news that their administration had fired an adjunct faculty member just ahead of live-saving surgery because that faculty member did not have enough sick leave to cover their projected absence. Efforts by the local faculty union president, Amanda Morris, to secure a one-time agreement to ensure the faculty member’s access to medical insurance were rejected by the PA State System of Higher Education and local administration. Apparently, cost concerns and worries that helping save one person’s life might set a precedent for helping save others, state and local administrators played the victim card claiming there was nothing they could do. 
Early Monday morning, faculty received some good news. The adjunct faculty member was facing COBRA payments of more than $637/month not to mention rent, food, bills, co-pays, and the cost of recovery. Thanks to efforts by the faculty union to help, Morris wrote in an email, individuals already have donated more than $3,380 to the adjunct faculty member. “Your generosity gives me hope,” she said. “This gives them four months of COBRA payments ($637.67 x 4 = approx $2550), and almost enough for one month’s rent.” At the time of this posting, total donations have risen to nearly $4,500. 
At Raging Chicken Press, we can report that more than 460 readers have clicked our “Here’s How You Can Help” button to find out how to contribute. The faculty member is still scheduled for surgery this week and will be unable to work during recovery, so Morris encouraged those who had not yet contributed to consider “adding a few dollars to the pot” to help with expenses during recovery.

There is much to celebrate here, no doubt. Most importantly an individual facing critical, life-saving surgery will not have to worry about their health insurance and some of their expenses. No longer will this individual be faced with choosing between life and economic livelihood. There is also cause to celebrate people coming together to help out someone in need. Just like when people come together to raise money and devote their time helping people recover from natural disasters, we should feel good about our humanity to see how quickly colleagues and strangers came to the aid of this individual. And, there is also an important story here about what it means to be a member of a union that will fight for you and creatively seek solutions and make good on the rhetoric of a “caring community.” 

However, we should also take pause to remember that such out-pourings of compassion and mutual aid are not policy. The story of this Kutztown University adjunct should throw in sharp relief the conditions of adjunct faculty and precarious workers everywhere. It should be underscored that the need for mutual aid was caused by a university policy that fires employees and kicks them off health insurance if they do not have enough sick time accumulated, even if doing so threatens that person’s life. That same policy forbids local university administrators from working with the faculty union to creatively solve a life-threatening problem through a locally negotiated agreement. The fact is, most adjunct faculty members nationwide face similar and worse conditions while being responsible for an ever-increasing share of teaching as universities cut tenure-track positions in favor of more “flexible” professors. 

Dr. Amy Lynch-Biniek, a faculty member in Kutztown’s English department and Chair of the Adjunct Faculty Committee of the faculty union, APSCUF, told me that in the U.S. “approximately 75% of higher ed teaching is done by contingent faculty.” And, the conditions they face are not unlike those playing out at Kutztown. “Most work on subsistence-level wages, with no or insufficient benefits,” she said. “While called ‘adjunct’ or ‘temporary,’ many work in their positions, at the same institutions, for many years. They dedicate themselves to their campus communities, but aren’t compensated enough to pay medical bills, mortgages, or school loans.”

I asked her how she responded when she first heard the news that university administrators fired an adjunct faculty member just ahead of critical surgery. “I was stunned,” she said. “Not by the general state of affairs–adjunct faculty nationwide struggle in the face of healthcare policies that cover them too little or not at all, with contracts that make them vulnerable. I have been a proud member of the KU community, and I had hoped that administration, whatever mandates from above, would adopt a stance of ‘let’s work together to see that this person is safe and cared for’.” 

It may be true that PASSHE’s Chancellor’s Office instructed the local administration not to cooperate with the union. That doesn’t mean they were powerless, however. “I respect that the Chancellor’s office may have given orders,” Lynch-Biniek told me.  “That does not mean that local administration can’t speak truth to power in response or work creatively to protect a colleague’s health and livelihood. Our leadership should set an example.” It would seem that Kutztown University’s emphasis on being a “caring community” in its mission statements and YouTube videos, would have been an ideal university to show leadership when it comes to protecting more vulnerable members of the university community–even if that means it would cost money or set some kind of precedent. Just imagine. Setting a precedent of caring for people at a university branding itself as a “caring community.”

PASSHE and Kutztown are certainly not alone when it comes to acting in direction contraction to their stated values. Just four years ago, people across the country learned the name Magaret Mary Vojtko. Vojtko worked at Duquesne University–a Catholic University in Pittsburgh –for 25 years as an adjunct. Like most of the nation’s adjunct workforce, Vojtko worked on a semester to semester contract, received no health benefits, and was paid between $3,000 and $3,500 per course. She would earn less than $25,000 annually. Tuition at Dusquene averages around $40,000 and the university president is paid over $700,000 with full benefits. For her years of service, the university eventually cut her loose while she was undergoing cancer treatments. She collapsed from a heart attack outside her home and died shortly afterwards, penniless. Vojtko’s case brought a national spotlight on the conditions of adjunct faculty nationwide, helping fuel adjunct union organizing campaigns. Lynch-Biniek noted that “organizing efforts among adjuncts have accelerated, but much progress needs still remains necessary.”  

While faculty, members of the community, and individuals nationwide have answered the call to help ensure that this one Kutztown University adjunct will not be forced down an even more precarious, life-threatening path, we should take that next step to make sure this situation does not happen again. That is, it is necessary to change the policy and insist that no one should ever have to choose between their life and their economic livelihood. On Facebook and in the comment section of this page, several readers have made the case that this story underscores the need to get away from employer-based health care and pass single-payer health insurance system. I agree. That fight needs to be ramped up in the face of the Republicans unrelenting efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the limited protections it offers. 

In the meantime, the fight needs to happen in every workplace and community. That means continuing the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid in a way that builds a truly caring community–one based in real practices, not simply public relations messaging. In the case of higher education, “a first step is for both tenure-line faculty and administrators to recognize adjunct faculty as more than FTEs and flex workers,” Lynch-Biniek argues.  “We need to embrace and accept the responsibility we share when we choose to be a part of a ‘campus community.’ Those of us with more comfortable and safe positions should stand up, speak out, and act when any of us are endangered, whether an adjunct faculty new to campus, a full professor, or a president.”

Hear, hear. 

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