Two years ago this month, the nation’s first postdoc union, University Health Professionals (UHP) at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington, overwhelmingly ratified its first contract. The pact provided higher pay, improved benefits, and a robust grievance procedure. Supporters of postdoc unions hoped it would launch a national movement. Detractors, meanwhile, feared it would damage postdocs’ relations with their advisers and their career prospects.

To date, neither prediction has come true. The contract quickly became the new normal in UCHC labs, where postdocs are only one category of workers in the long-established union, Local 3837 of the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers. Right now, UHP and UCHC are conducting their regular quadrennial negotiations to renew the contract that covers postdocs and more than 1000 other UHP members. The talks are proceeding amicably, says UHP president Jean Morningstar, who foresees "no problems" and expects a new agreement to be ratified in the spring.

Back when UCHC postdoc activists were feeling the euphoria of victory over university opposition, some saw their struggle as the beginning of a movement for change throughout American science. But rather than the anticipated groundswell of support for postdoc unionization, Morningstar told Next Wave, UHP has received inquiries from postdocs interested in unionization at “a couple of other campuses,” including Stony Brook University in New York state, where a drive to organize postdocs is part of a larger unionization effort on the campus.

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The West Coast has also seen scattered interest. Last fall, people identifying themselves as organizers for the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) entered labs at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, allegedly in violation of security regulations, and asked postdocs to sign cards indicating a desire to be represented by an entity called Postdoctoral Researcher Organize/UAW (PRO/UAW). More recently, PRO/UAW organizers have appeared at UCLA and UC Berkeley. An international union mostly concentrated in the manufacturing sector, UAW has 640,000 active members who produce products as diverse as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler cars, Revlon cosmetics, and Land O’Lakes butter. The union also has half a million retired members.

Through its Technical, Office, and Professional division, UAW represents white collar workers across the country, including journalists, computer specialists, social-service workers, librarians, museum staffers, and employees of state governments and of more than 20 colleges and universities, many of them graduate student employees. Under California law, an election to determine whether postdocs want union representation would take place when 30% sign those cards. Should 50% plus one postdoc sign, the union would become the postdocs’ bargaining representative without an election.

As required by law, "the university is maintaining a neutral stance" toward postdoc unionization, says Christine Des Jarlais, UCSF’s assistant dean for graduate outreach and postdoctoral affairs. The UCSF Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA), too, remains neutral. "Our organization is neither pro- nor antiunion. We were not even informed" of the organizing activities, says PSA president Christina Lewis.

Asked about UAW intentions for postdocs at UCSF and elsewhere in California, spokesperson Maureen Boyd would say only that "the UAW already represents 22,000 academics on the West Coast, including 12,000 teaching assistants, readers, and tutors at the University of California; 6000 research assistants, teaching assistants, readers, and tutors at the California State University; and 4000 research assistants, teaching assists readers, and tutors at the University of Washington. We can confirm that we have been contacted by postdocs at the University of California."

A number of other unions also represent various categories of workers on UC campuses. These include University Professional and Technical Employees, also known as Local 9119 of the Communications Workers of America, and locals of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and of the American Federation of Teachers, all three of which are AFL-CIO affiliates.

Things Start in California

In California, dueling Web sites are already promoting and anonymously condemning the PRO/UAW campaign. Thanks to an initiative dubbed the California Plan, UC postdocs already have a better deal than many postdocs elsewhere in the country, including many of the services and benefits won by the UCHC postdoc union. It could be argued that UC-system postdocs have less need for a postdoc union than their counterparts on many other campuses, including pre-union UCHC. Yet the UC system offers the single largest and (thanks in part to the UC administration) best organized group of postdocs in the country, so UC postdocs are obvious targets for unions that want to build national momentum, even if they have less to complain about than their national peers.

A Good Idea?

Only UC postdocs--and those at other universities across the country--can decide whether unionization is right for them. So far, there has been only one experiment that postdocs can look to for guidance: the one at UCHC. So did UCHC postdocs make the right decision when they decided to join the union? Despite claims that higher salaries would mean fewer postdoc positions, Morningstar says that the number of postdocs at UCHC has remained "pretty static" since the union contract was ratified.

The union contract has also worked out well in other respects, says John Wagner, one of the early UCHC activists and a member of the team that negotiated the first union contract. "You want to look at the tangibles: money, benefits. We were very successful. We brought up the minimum salary, which really helped lift a large fraction of postdocs. We got annual adjustments for cost of living and so forth."

But "there’s a second way of evaluating this, in terms of the intangibles, things that you get out of it that don’t fill your stomach but that fill your soul: respect, which I think is number one; the ability to go to work and not have to put up with being treated like a second-class citizen. It was also about working conditions and wages, but most people are willing to tolerate pretty crappy pay if they’ve got a job that fulfills them.”

"I think that along those lines we were very successful. Not being treated like second-class citizens. Seeing postdocs walk with a little bit more snap." Postdocs felt more respected in "a lot of little ways” and some big ones, Wagner says. Annual evaluations, for example, were pro forma and "took 30 seconds" preunion, but once written into the contract, they are "taken much more seriously now."

Nor did the union damage Wagner's relationship with his principal investigator. "When we were organizing, my PI was quite adamant, quite against it. He had a long laundry list of problems that it was going to cause. He foresaw a lot of potential problems. After it was all said and done, we got the contract inked, and none of these problems came to pass."

It was this same PI, Wagner says, who took the initiative to recommend him to a recruiter at a meeting. "I wouldn’t be where I am now,” in a research position with a major international corporation at a salary far above his postdoc pay, had his PI not done so. To clinch the deal, "my PI wrote a very strong letter."

Respect

Munirathinam Subramani, another original UHP activist, agrees that the contract brought “better respect from PIs” and raises of "close to $10,000" for some individuals. "There is no negative aspect until this moment. There was not a single incident I could give you. I don’t think it’s affected any grants or relations with faculty.” In fact, he “came out with some significant findings in my research work while I was involved in union activities. Although my boss was not so happy about my union activities, we always enjoyed doing science together.” During that same period, Subramani even found time to do some mentoring of his own, of a local high school student working in his lab, an effort that won him Glastonbury High School’s best mentor award.

“I have nothing negative to say that I saw or experienced," Subramani says. Nor did his activism prevent him from receiving "three different final [job] offers including a tenure track.” Before accepting his present post as an associate research scientist with faculty status in the Yale medical school, "I didn’t even give a talk," he says.

A Special Note

NRSA postdocs who have paid FICA (Social Security) taxes may be eligible for a tax refund, according to the PhDs.org Web site. For information, see the Science Careers Web log.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington , D.C.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.