Last summer, the postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) voted narrowly to join a labor union. On 16 March they voted overwhelmingly--80 to 5--to ratify what is believed to be the nation's first collective bargaining agreement specifically for postdocs. Negotiated by UCHC and the union, University Health Professionals (UHP), also known as Local 3837 of the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers, the pact was hailed by both sides as fair and sensitive to postdocs' special status as both employees and trainees. It grants sharply improved pay and benefits and establishes UCHC's first minimum postdoc salary.

Provisions of the agreement

Every postdoc employed as of 28 August 2003 immediately receives a one-time bonus of $500. Then, on 9 July, all postdocs will get either the mandated minimum salary of $34,200 or a 3% raise, whichever is greater. A year later the minimum rises to $36,000 and all postdocs get the greater of that sum or a 3.25% raise. Over 2 years, pay increases for the approximately 140 postdocs will cost about $1 million, or 13% of current postdoc pay, according to the union. Benefits include 12 paid sick days and 30 paid leave days a year, disability insurance, a child care scholarship of $15 per week, dependent tuition waivers, and an adoption benefit of $1000 per child adopted.

The contract also guarantees a three-step grievance procedure that includes union protections and union representation, yearly written evaluations, 3-months' notice if a grant is not renewed, a "just cause" standard of dismissal and discipline following a 6-month probationary period, and the right to be considered an internal applicant for other university positions in case of layoff or nonrenewal.

The 2-year agreement is technically an amendment to UHP's current 4-year contract that covers 1900 other UCHC employees and expires in 2006. UCHC is considered an "agency shop"; postdocs must either join the union or pay it a 1% agency fee. Future postdoc agreements will be negotiated as part of the overall UHP contract. With a few exceptions, the agreement provides postdocs the same protections enjoyed by all other UHP members. Having been ratified by the university trustees, it awaits approval by the state legislature, which both sides expect it to receive.

"It is a very reasonable agreement," says Karen Duffy Wallace, UCHC director of labor relations and chief management negotiator. "We're pleased to have it settled and we hope it will help us recruit the best postdocs." Munirathinam Subramani, a postdoc who served on the union negotiating team, agrees that, "because of the fairness," the pact should give UCHC an edge in the competition "to attract postdocs. ... It is not just about the salary. It is about the best grievance procedure, the best benefits, the best leave and vacation. ... Look at other universities and compare. ... This stands right next to the best private industry standards."

The agreement nonetheless carefully "recognizes the unique status of postdocs," Wallace notes. "They're not intended to be permanent employees. They have different goals. ... You couldn't just apply the existing UHP [contract] language to postdocs because it didn't fit our needs or their needs." Postdocs, for example, did not receive the rights to be recalled after layoff or to bump employees with lesser seniority, both standard in most labor contracts. "We decided that postdocs should continue to be hired basically the way they ever were, through some kind of agreement between the PI and the postdoc," says Renae Reese, UHP first vice president and a member of the union negotiating team. Therefore the union "consistently backed off from negotiating any rights about how postdocs are hired," she added.

Leave time is also structured differently from standard agreements. Rather than accruing leave days for each pay period, postdocs receive each year's leave as a lump sum on 1 January and may use it, subject to their PI's approval, during the next 12 months. The negotiators designed this unusual structure "very deliberately," Reese explained. "Postdocs do not earn compensatory time." Should regular employees unexpectedly need time off, they "can quickly earn some time by working extra hours. Since postdocs [can't do that], we felt that they needed all of their leave time for the year available to them the entire time."

Comp time is inappropriate because "having postdocs punch a time clock" and count hours like ordinary employees violates "the reality of doing science," says PI Brenton Graveley, an assistant professor of genetics and developmental biology who served on the management negotiating team. The unusual leave system allows postdocs to "plan around their work," Wallace adds. In addition, "a high percentage of our postdocs are not American citizens. Often they need to take off more than a couple of days. It's hard to accrue enough time. So this would accommodate that need." Overall, the system tries to "treat them a little like new faculty" rather than as regular employees, she added.

"Preserving the essence of the postdoc experience"

Besides setting "a standard by which postdocs should be treated," the contract "does a good job of protecting the rights of the postdoc and at the same time preserving the essence of the postdoc experience," Graveley says. For the postdocs, too, safeguarding their special status and role was paramount. Because the two sides had these "common goals," the negotiations were "off the charts" in speed and efficiency, says Reese.

"When we first started organizing, one of our goals was to change science for the better," adds John Wagner, a former postdoc who served on the union negotiating team. In the 127 years since the first postdoc at Johns Hopkins University, "the postdoc's life and status never changed," Subramani says. But, he believes, the example of the UHP contract "is going to change things in this country."

The postdocs take particular pride that dire predictions of spoiled relationships with mentors have not come true. The negotiations, in Wallace's words, "were very harmonious and productive." Despite initial fears that "the contract would potentially [change] the relationship between the postdoc and PI," Graveley sees no difference in his own lab and hasn't "heard any major gripes" from colleagues. "In the lab," agrees postdoc and negotiation team member Yi Qiao, "every postdoc is happy. Nothing changed" in their relationship with their PIs.

So what should postdocs on other campuses conclude from the UCHC experience? The contract "took a lot of hard work and dedication. ... A lot people worked to make it a happy ending," says Wagner.

Bill Loftus, a postdoc and negotiation team member, puts it more simply: "Our agreement speaks for itself."

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.