University unions are much in the news these days. In early December 2003 an agreement between the University of California and United Auto Workers Local 2865, bargaining agent for 11,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and readers on the UC system's eight undergraduate teaching campuses, narrowly averted a strike scheduled for final exam week. Negotiations also began between the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington and University Health Professionals, the American Federation of Teachers local that represents the nation's first unionized postdocs.

The California contract covers only students involved in teaching, said Rajan Mehta, head union steward for the Berkeley campus, where he is a graduate student in math. "Research assistants are not currently organized under our union, or at all." Local 2865, however, is "considering" moving toward unionization of students employed in on-campus research. By a vote of 1628 to 26, members of the statewide union of so-called academic student employees ratified the 3-year contract granting them an immediate and retroactive 1.5% pay increase, future pay hikes tied to faculty raises, and continued complete remission of tuition and fees (including health care fees) despite recent, sharp increases in these charges. The union also won enhanced access to incoming graduate students. In light of California's present financial distress, this is considered a good settlement, Mehta added.

What Will Unions Bring to Postdocs?

But what will unionization bring the postdocs at UCHC and any other campuses that may follow them into the ranks of organized labor? Given postdocs' dependence on their mentors for both current working conditions and future career prospects, potential effects on mentor-postdoc relations have raised concern. Predictions range from destruction of that crucial partnership to a new era of improved mutual respect.

Empirical data bearing on this question don't exist. But extrapolation from findings about graduate student unionization suggests a nuanced picture. Faculty members generally "don't feel that [unionization] impairs their educational relationship," says the author of an influential and widely cited study of faculty attitudes on five campuses with graduate unions. Significantly for postdocs, however, natural science faculty are "less likely to support unionization in general than the faculty in the humanities and social sciences," said the study's author, Gordon Hewitt, director of institutional research at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in an interview with Next Wave. His survey of faculty members at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the Universities of Florida, Michigan, and Oregon covered the schools with the "largest and most comprehensive ... doctoral programs offered" among the 12 institutions with graduate student unions at the time of the study.

The central issue is differentiating "between activities as a student and activities as" an employee, Hewitt says. Insofar as grad students "are performing a duty for the college and receiving pay for it, they're employees; you can't say that they're just students." But since "they're being supervised as employees and as students by the same person," the relationship becomes "more complicated."

Postdocs are in this same position, "supervised by faculty people who are serving both as educator and as employer," in Hewitt's words. Because his research "did not look at the postdoc issues," he declines to comment on its applicability to their situation. But, he notes, "there certainly are a lot of parallels" between graduate students and postdocs.

His study examined faculty members' attitudes from three perspectives. First, he asked about their "theoretical or ... cognitive beliefs [about] graduate unions." Did they support or oppose unionization and "generally believe graduate students should belong to unions or not"? Next he asked whether, "based on their experience in teaching and supervising graduate students, the collective bargaining agreement interfered with [their] ability to advise, teach, and so on." Finally he posed open-ended questions, allowing feedback "beyond the questions that I asked." The nearly 300 respondents were a random sample that "reflected proportionately" the distribution of faculty among subject areas, with about 31% in natural sciences.

"Basically, what the faculty said is, 'No, we don't let [the union] affect the educational relationship; it's not a factor,' " Hewitt said. But he also found that views varied across disciplines. "Based on some research that was done in some other places," he had hypothesized "that the faculties of natural sciences were going to be less supportive of graduate unions than the faculty in the other groups because [of] the nature of the job. The faculty in the sciences [have] a lot more personal interaction with their graduate students because they're in the lab with them all day long, ... whereas the graduate students in the humanities and social science meet with their advisors, but then go to the library. ... There's more of a personal bond between ... natural science faculty and graduate students." According to this hypothesis, "having [union] rules coming in to define more what they're going to be doing in their contact with their students ... is probably more of a threat to them" than to colleagues in the humanities or social sciences.

Science Faculty Views More Complicated

But responses from natural science faculty members proved more complicated than the hypothesis had predicted. Although they voiced more negative opinions about unionization than their nonscientist colleagues did, their actual experiences "teaching and advising [unionized] students ... were no different than in the humanities or social sciences. ... They weren't experiencing that affected educational relationship that was being theorized by the administrators."

And it is mainly administrators who argue that unions damage faculty-student relations, Hewitt noted. "Administrations fight these unionizing drives pretty vigorously." Often, "in defending against a union drive, [administrators argue that] a third-party contractual agreement is going to interfere with that educational relationship." But, he noted, "rather than using this somewhat disingenuous educational relationship argument, they should stick to the facts [that the opposition is] really a financial issue; it's really a cost issue."

Money may also account for natural scientists' "more anti-union" sentiments, Hewitt suggested. "Their negative feelings came out focused around money issues. ... They are at a competitive disadvantage when they're going to apply for grants if they have higher labor costs than other universities that don't have unions."

In addition, "some faculty, whether they were supportive or not of the union, didn't like the fact that union activity or union activism took away from [students'] time to complete their degrees or to do their work." But Hewitt knew of no evidence that faculty retaliated against grad student union activists. He did, however, mention a case of administrative retaliation against a faculty member who actively supported a student unionization drive.

And, Hewitt added, "even [among] those faculty members who didn't feel that graduate students should be unionized, still, many of them felt that graduate students were, to a degree, exploited and underpaid, did not have good working conditions." These individuals' opposition to unions "could be a political thing," Hewitt surmised, but he noted that the study did not explore faculty members' overall political orientations.

"What comes out of my data," he concluded, is that natural science faculty members' theoretical opposition to grad student unions is "more of a financial, administrative issue than an educational issue. ...Educationally the natural science faculty feel like the social science faculty or the humanities faculty, that unionization does not affect the educational relationship. Administratively or financially, it does have an impact on the way they operate."

Will the same hold true for unionized postdocs? Only time will tell. "On one level the faculty did express concern that, even though [unionization] doesn't interfere with the relationship, it does cost more money [and] there's more bureaucracy involved with it. But there's clearly two levels to my findings," Hewitt said. But if the experience of graduate student unionization applies to postdocs, unionization "doesn't affect that one-on-one educational relationship" at the heart of scientific training.

Agree? Disagree? Send your well-considered argument to jaustin@aaas.org, and we'll consider publishing it.

Reference

G. J. Hewitt, Graduate student employee collective bargaining and the educational relationship between faculty and graduate students. J. Collective Negotiations 29, 153 (2000). http://www.caseuaw.org/hewitt.pdf

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.