Margaret Mary Vojtko died last summer at age 83. Her death has turned her name into an emotional rallying cry for adjunct college teachers who are seeking justice from their schools.

You see, Vojtko taught French classes for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, earning high marks from her students. Their praise helped make up for Duquesne’s poor pay.

Duquesne University

Roamin’ Catholic/Flickr

Like most teachers there, Margaret Mary was part of the adjunct faculty — a group with few rights, so schools like Duquesne can take advantage of them. And they do.

As with other adjuncts, Professor Vojtko was unsalaried and paid a low rate for each course she taught. She lacked a reliable annual income since she was never told how many classes she would be teaching until just before a semester began. It might be three, two, one…or none.

Even in good years with full teaching loads, her pay amounted to less than $25,000, with zero benefits.

Vojtko ‘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 the spring of 2013, that is, when Duquesne fired her.

The following August, Margaret Mary Vojtko was found sprawled on her front yard, having suffered a massive heart attack.

This proud professional educator died penniless, jobless…and literally heartbroken, a few months after being thrown away by the university that had used her for 25 years.

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.

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Jim Hightower

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown.

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