Who Speaks for the Postdocs?

As postdocs around the country were feeling forgotten and exploited, a group of them looked up from the lab bench to take action. They now have their own national association that is working with administrators to define and support their place at universities and other institutions. And some have gone so far as to enlist unions to help them negotiate their needs.

Postdocs founded the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in 2003. Working with institutions and science-funding agencies, the NPA advocates for improvements to the postdoctoral experience.

The NPA provides resources for postdocs and promotes the creation of postdoc support offices—centralized places where postdocs may seek career training or advice. There are now 128 offices registered with the Association, says executive director Cathee Johnson Phillips.

Change doesn’t always come smoothly, however. For example, postdocs at the University of California (UC)—at more than 6,000 strong, one of the largest such groups in the nation—recently went through a prolonged negotiation process after enlisting the help of the UAW (United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America).

That makes the UC system a case study for other postdocs who may want to unionize. Only a handful of university groups have done so, says Neal Sweeney, a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz who served as interim vice president of the postdoc chapter. Postdocs at the University of Connecticut and Rutgers University in New Jersey have joined with other academics to negotiate, he says, and postdocs at the University of Massachusetts are unionizing on their own like the UC group did.

Not everyone supports the impending wave of unionization. The NPA, for example, remains neutral on the subject. Others simply wonder if placing postdocs and universities on opposite sides of the table is the best way to promote change. “I can very much see the need for a powerful advocate … but I wish it hadn’t come to that,” says Maryrose Franko, senior program officer for the department of science education at HHMI’s Chevy Chase, Maryland, headquarters. “Your advocate should be your research advisor, your department chair.”

Joining forces with the UAW was not meant to be an antagonistic move, Sweeney says. Instead, he says, the democratic union process appealed to postdocs, many of whom were also unionized as graduate students at UC. And many professors supported the postdocs’ actions.

“Without collective bargaining, you can request things, but you can’t really have a binding contract with the university,” Sweeney says.

Many people wonder how auto workers can possibly represent academic scientists. But in fact, the UAW was a “perfect fit,” counters Matthew “Oki” O’Connor, who spent two years working on union negotiations after his postdoc at UC Berkeley. The UAW, he points out, represents more than 40,000 teaching assistants, faculty, and postdocs. All the union reps he worked with had relevant experience, such as graduate degrees, says O’Connor, now on staff at the SENS Foundation in Mountain View, California. Other postdocs have teamed with the American Federation of Teachers.

Negotiating for UC postdocs was a rocky process. Appalled lawmakers—dismayed that negotiations dragged on for years—got involved at a congressional hearing at UC Berkeley in April 2010. The union filed charges of unfair labor practices in June 2010. The final settlement, ratified in August 2010, guaranteed postdocs annual wage increases, parental leave, and access to University career centers, among many other benefits.

Has the union contract helped? Some postdocs haven’t felt much benefit. At this point, UC San Diego postdoc Richard Ting has mainly noticed the dues that come out of his salary.

Indeed, unionization may not mean much to happy, well-cared-for postdocs. But the contract is a big deal when things go wrong, Sweeney says. For example, the UC union is now working to assist a postdoc, who alleges she was fired unfairly, get the arbitration process that her contract guarantees. It’s a recourse she would not have had before 2010.

-- Amber Dance
HHMI Bulletin, May 2011

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