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Solidarity 101

You may have heard about Fight for 15, an effort to raise minimum wages for fast-food restaurant workers. But there is another class of worker, located in a perhaps unexpected labor sector, that has also recently been agitating for better treatment and union recognition: adjunct professors.

Forty years ago more than 70 percent of college and university classes were taught by full-time academics who enjoyed good pay, benefits and, most coveted of all, tenure or at least a shot at it. Only about 30 percent of classes were led by adjuncts. Now those percentages have flipped, and there is little indication that the nation’s universities and colleges are interested in reversing that trend. It is not hard to figure out why. The wages and treatment of adjuncts vary widely, but many string together classes at one or more institutions without a hope of tenure track, job benefits or adequate pay. Compensation can be shockingly low, as little as $2,000 per course, though one survey reports a national average of $2,987.

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The upsurge in union activism offers institutions of higher learning an opportunity to reconsider their reliance on adjuncts and the ethics of their working conditions.

In May, Georgetown University accepted the establishment of a union for its adjuncts. Unfortunately, other Catholic colleges have taken a course of resistance, even hiding behind religious liberty arguments when investigators from the National Labor Relations Board have come knocking. They might rather review their copies of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and reread what Popes Leo XIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI had to say about the treatment of workers and the important role of unions and collective bargaining. This is a test Catholic institutions especially should not fail.

A Tragi-Comic Opera

“They are treating me like a common criminal,” Silvio Berlusconi, 77, the four-time prime minister of Italy, raged earlier this month. In August Italy’s highest court had found Il Cavaliere (the Knight) guilty of tax evasion and imposed a four-year sentence. But that conviction was not the end of the enduring comic opera of Italian politics throughout the Berlusconi era.

Even though his sentence may be reduced to one year of house arrest or community service, Mr. Berlusconi must give up his Senate seat, and with it his immunity, as a result of the Severino law, passed in 2012. The new law, supported originally by Mr. Berlusconi’s party, states that anyone holding political office who has been sentenced to more than two years of jail loses his or her position. Until now Mr. Berlusconi has appeared to be immune from sexual scandals, business fraud and “attempted political assassination,” as he put it. His smile, wiliness and savvy sufficiently charmed the electorate.

The Italian reality, however, is that Mr. Berlusconi’s party is threatening to leave the coalition government if some exception is not made for the lead actor in this melodrama. A parliamentary committee of 23 lawmakers will decide Mr. Berlusconi’s future.

This potential crisis has drawn consternation from the European Union, which fears that a political collapse in Italy could trigger another round of economic crises. Concerns about a political collapse of the current Italian government are misplaced. Italy is resilient. It has had 46 governments since 1945. If the last act of this comic opera results in the departure from the stage of Il Cavaliere, Italy can move forward with genuine political, social and economic reform.

Understanding the Poor

Individuals mired in poverty face many challenges as they seek to better their lives. Failing public transit systems make it difficult for them to travel to work. A scarcity of affordable child care leads many to stay home rather than look for a job. Deteriorating public housing pushes young people out of their homes and onto the streets.

Now new evidence points to another challenge for people who are poor: the cognitive demands of poverty itself. According to a study published in the journal Science, individuals who are poor are constantly thinking about how to make the most of a dollar; as a result, other decisions they make in their lives—whether about parenting or diet—are impaired. Farmers, for example, performed better on cognitive tests after a harvest than before a harvest because the profits provided a financial and mental cushion.

These findings are detailed for the lay reader in the new book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Their research should finally put to rest the misguided notion that people are poor mainly because of low intelligence or a poor work ethic rather than the conditions in which they live. Their work should also help advance public policy. The more we know about the conditions and stresses that poor people face, the better positioned we will be to lend them a hand. Christian ministers have long held that helping the poor must begin as an exercise in empathy. It is encouraging to see the behavioral sciences build upon this moral insight.

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