Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dr. Antonio Calvo's Tragedy: Could It Have Been Avoided?

What happened to Dr. Calvo who killed himself after being fired in a really nasty way by Princeton University is truly tragic. The question that, of necessity, is on everybody's mind is what can be done to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. At-will firing that is the norm in the US is a horrible, inhumane practice. People can be told to clear their work spaces and leave without any warning whatsoever. Often, they are escorted from the premises by security guards and prevented even from saying good-bye to their colleagues of many years. In academia, getting fired between the months of April and September also means that you will not be able to go on the job market until it reopens on September 15. Furthermore, you will not be able to start working until September of the year after that. People who are not US citizens face almost immediate deportation after their work visas are revoked. Obviously, this system implies a lot of pain and suffering for the employees. Workers have to live in a constant fear of dismissal which takes a huge emotional toll.

Unions seem to offer a solution to this issue. They will protect employees from getting kicked out with no warning. However, unions have their problems, too. As important as it is to protect the rights of the employees, it is equally crucial that employers are protected as well. Unions make it extremely hard to dismiss bad employees and reward the good ones. To give an example, the union prevented my department from offering a monetary reward to a stellar instructor on the grounds that every member of the union should be compensated equally. And all my whining about how hard it is to get students to speak Spanish in class? This issue would be easy to solve if it weren't for the union.

It seems like the only productive solution to balancing the needs of both workers and employees is to have a disinterested third party that will impose a system of regulations to protect everybody. That third party has to be the government. Take Canada, for example. I'm not a complete and utter apologist of Canada, in any way or manner. However, it is evident to me that the way Canadians deal with the issue is quite productive. There is a system of regulations in place that outlines how, when and for what reasons an employee can be fired. People are also provided with a financial cushion that transforms the loss of a job from a tragedy into nothing more than an annoying temporary setback.

Contrary to Libertarian beliefs, this did not hamper Canadian job market in any way. Compared to what we see in the US today, the situation with employment in Canada is quite good.


Pagan Topologist said...

Not all unions try to make sure all their members are paid the smae, and I have never understood this viewpoint. The airline pilots' union does demand that pay be based solely on seniority; the Screen Actors' Guild is happy to have some members paid more than others, so long as the minimum pay (scale, I think they call it) is always respected.

Tim said...

Wow, I really can't wrap my head around what you call 'at-will' firing.

I mean, how surreal is that ? One moment you are doing job just like you have done days and days before and a short notice later you are unemployed and standing on the street.

Especially when you consider that all the mass layouts are usually occurring in low-paying 'non-essential' positions, who often are people who live from paycheck to paycheck.

If you are interested how things work over here, then I can tell you that an employer has to send you the notice of dismissal several months (depending on how long you have worked there, between 1 month for 2 years of employment up to 7 months for 20 years) before your employment contract is actually cancelled and he needs to have a valid reason for doing so.

Though I am not sure that regulations would have prevented this tragedy. Laws are normally not the best way to solve discrimination as occurred here.

Izgad said...

The government is never "disinterested" it is a swarm of "special interests" with the power to use physical force.

Clarissa said...

Oh Tim, I just went completely green with envy.

At-will firing doesn't happen to low-paid workers exclusively. It happens to everyone. Imagine having a PhD from a very prestigious school and being a very highly qualified specialist in your field. On Friday you go home as the employee of the week. On Monday, you are told to "clear the premises within 15 minutes" with absolutely no explanation or warning. And then being told that you have less than a month to get your affairs in order because you are being deported. This is not a scary story I just invented. This happened to a close family member. The trauma and the humiliation - as well as the burden of having no idea why this happened - stay with you forever.

Izgad, I'd take the vague threat of governmental physical force any day of the week over this.

Clarissa said...

Pagan Topologist: I was speaking mostly about the unions in academia which is a subject I know well because of my history as a union organizer. It's good to know that other unions are not that hopeless. :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

Our faculty union does not try to prevent the university from paying some people more than others. It does enforce a contractual minimum, along with contractually agreed working conditions.

devin said...

I don't understand the liberal nonsense being spouted here. I came here trying to learn the facts of this apparent tragedy, but at-will employment is a two-way street. Absent an agreement to the contrary, either the employer can terminate the employee or the employee can leave to get a more desireable position. It is part of what makes a capital economy churn. At any time, the parties can enter into a term agreement. See, e.g., tenure.

Anonymous said...

Devin your fired. Get lost. I hardly think trying to help people keep their jobs is purely a liberal attitude. Honestly everybody needs to have a sense of job security. Why give your all for a company that may just turn around tomorrow and let you go?

Clarissa said...

devin, you are such a comedian. You think that Dr. Calvo didn't get tenure because he CHOSE not to?

And no, I cannot leave to get a more desirable position in the middle of the semester while my classes are still scheduled to teach, buddy. There will be no "desirable" position for me if I do that.

I wish people tried to think before they posted things like this.

Anonymous said...

Clarissa, do you know that his visa was revoked? Normally when a foreign national is terminated there is time remaining on the visa and a reasonable amount of time allowed for the FN to leave. I know of no one who has been "immediately deported." In Dr. Calvo's case he would have had little problem having another school or company apply for a new visa for him, he was extremely popular with many friends. If one visa expires, the new application covers the FN while it is in process. Further, there is not a waiting period as you describe for academic jobs. Hiring is conducted year-round. Take a look at the Chronicle for Higher Education. It is a human profession, replacements are needed with regularity. I wonder why details of Dr. Calvo's death have been kept secret and no notices have appeared in the NY or Spain papers.

Clarissa said...

" Normally when a foreign national is terminated there is time remaining on the visa and a reasonable amount of time allowed for the FN to leave."

-You are wrong. Read my most recent post where I talk precisely about this. This is a subject I, unfortunately, know a lot about. There is NO reasonable amount of time given.

Hiring in our field is not conducted all year round. Our schedule for the entire next academic year (2011-12) is already made. Nobody is hiring. Finding an academic position within a month in April - on today's job market in our field - is more difficult than growing wings and learning to fly.

Clarissa said...

here is the recent post on deportations:

You get a month if you are extremely lucky.