In the annals of the American labor movement, contested unionization campaigns are a common story, often involving downtrodden workers struggling against the concerted opposition of wealthy, powerful, even malign employers. This Labor Day weekend, however, the postdocs on the University of California’s (UC) ten campuses are embroiled in a unionization dispute that violates that time-honored script. The cast includes union organizers who claim to have the support of most UC postdocs, an employer that asserts neutrality, and an unknown number of postdocs who oppose the union and are working to defeat its efforts to organize their approximately 5800 colleagues.

If the union, which is known as PRO/UAW (its official title is Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America), has valid signatures from 50%-plus-one of UC’s postdocs as it claims, unionization is automatic under state law. If it lacks 50%-plus-one but has 30%-plus-one, an election will be held to decide the issue. Opponents, however, are urging postdocs who have already given the union their signed consent to fight unionization by formally withdrawing their signatures.

An unprecedented dispute

The drama’s outcome will depend on the findings of California’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which regulates the state’s public employee unions. For now at least, PERB is saying very little. “We’re investigating whether the union has provided sufficient proof of support,” Robin Wesley, PERB’s acting general council, told Next Wave from her office in Sacramento. “We’ve not really been faced with that circumstance [of rescinded signatures] before.” Under the state law governing employment at California’s public universities, neither statute nor precedent explicitly authorizes withdrawal of signatures. Federal precedent does recognize withdrawal, but its applicability to state cases is as yet unclear.

In July, after months of talking with postdocs and gathering signatures on the various UC campuses, PRO/UAW “filed a majority recognition petition with the state labor board. We filed a strong majority,” Maureen Boyd, an international representative with UAW, said in an interview. As those signatures were being collected and submitted, however, some postdocs were objecting to organizers’ tactics as they visited labs and persuaded postdocs to sign cards authorizing the union. By law, the decision whether to sign rests entirely with each individual postdoc, regardless of citizenship. Many of the organizers are themselves UC postdocs and graduate students, according to the union.

If the drive to organize the UC system's postdocs succeeds, it will create the nation’s second postdoc union--and by far the larger. In 2004, in a process that hewed much more closely to the traditional plot line, the approximately 125 postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington formed the nation’s first postdoc union, becoming a unit of University Health Professionals, otherwise known as Local 3837 of the American Federation of Teachers, which had already organized a number of groups on the campus. A favorable PERB ruling would bring all of UC’s nearly 6000 postdocs--about 10% of the nation’s total--into an international union that has already organized the UC system’s 12,000 graduate teaching assistants, readers, and tutors into the Association of Graduate Student Employees/UAW.

UAW also represents 8000 graduate student employees in the California State University system and at the University of Washington, as well as “teachers, researchers, counselors, clericals, service workers and maintenance workers at over 40 universities and colleges,” according to the PRO/UAW Web site. Thirteen unions currently represent about 60,000 of UC’s 165,000 employees. In addition to graduate-student employees, unionized workers include registered nurses and other health care professionals, librarians, research support workers, adjunct teachers, UC Santa Cruz faculty members, police officers, clerical workers, and members of skilled construction and printing trades.

An opposition leader whose name isn’t Anne T. Union, and who agreed to speak with Next Wave on condition of anonymity, has created a Web site called Anti-PRO/UAW, which includes detailed critiques of the union’s activities and statements and calls for postdocs to sign anti-union petitions and write to PERB rescinding their authorization signatures. An unknown number have followed this advice. Anne, a UC San Francisco postdoc, claims that approximately 150 postdocs on that campus have signed petitions and between 50 and 100 have written to withdraw their consent. Estimates for other campuses are not available.

Disputed claims

The dispute over PRO/UAW appears to center more on the process used to gather signatures than on the pros and cons of collective bargaining. “It’s not as though I’m opposed to unionization in general,” Anne said. “Anything that discusses esteem, influence, and respect, I’m definitely for.” But PRO/UAW’s “tactics were so dishonest, so deceitful, we couldn’t trust them. [They went] sneaking from one lab to another and then barraging [postdocs] with these cards.” Opponents further allege that the union has failed to provide clear information about the consequences of signing or to answer requests for further details. “As researchers, what we do all the time is look at the data and analyze it,” Anne continued. “We never saw the data. ... It’s very frustrating. We feel we're like a ping pong ball.”

Other gripes center on the signature card itself. Busy postdocs, Anne’s Web site states, “didn't have the time to read” the card’s 70 words, leaving many, especially international scientists, “misinformed about the meaning of the card” because the “true meaning of the card appears in tiny print.” That sentence, which appears above the signature line, states, “I authorize Postdoctoral Researchers Organize (PRO/UAW) International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America to represent me in collective bargaining.”

Because of these and other union failings, the Anti-PRO/UAW Web site claims, “A MAJORITY of postdocs signed authorization cards under false pretenses.” As proof it cites a survey done at UC-Davis that received 124 responses, about 16% of the campus’s 800 postdocs. Twenty-four of the respondents who reported signing say they did so to “receive additional information.” That figure indeed constitutes a majority of the 39 respondents who reported signing the card. It isn't clear, however, whether the Davis survey is typical of opinion among the nearly 6000 postdocs systemwide.

Boyd strongly denies the allegations, insisting that union organizers were frank, open, and straightforward in their dealings with postdocs. “We’ve always organized the same way,” she said. “We’re always very clear. The card is pretty clear, the Web site’s clear. If people have questions, we speak with them.”

For its part, the university is legally barred from expressing any opinion on the desirability of a union. “We neither oppose nor encourage unionization,” Paul Schwartz, a spokesman for the UC president’s office, told Next Wave. “We very much support employees’ rights to choose for themselves whether or not they think unionization is beneficial.”

Nonetheless, on 2 August, the university filed with PERB an objection to the union’s petition, citing postdocs’ claims of unfair treatment by organizers. The university took this step, according to Schwartz, “because we have been hearing and continu[e] to hear from a number of postdocs who have signed representation cards but feel that they were not presented with complete information or were misled by the union in terms of what signing those cards meant. … We were not making those allegation, but since we had heard from more than a few postdocs, we felt, in fairness to the employees” that PERB should be notified. “We were not taking a position, but are relaying information. ... What we are hearing is people complaining about it, but that is not to say that there aren‘t people who support unionization.”

The union, Boyd said in mid-August, is “in the process of responding to the university’s objection.” The union’s Web site argues that the university based its objection “on the unsupported and vague claims of a few individuals. Indeed, the university's filing includes only 14 affidavits from postdoctoral fellows [who] allege a range of unclear and general claims that run counter to everything the Union has ever stated about the organizing process, including the clear statements on this very Web site.”

It is not clear when or how PERB will act or how long the process will take; because of the dispute, there may be appeals before a final decision is reached. With a routine petition, “we ... make a determination at the staff level.” Wesley said. “If there is dispute, there are certain rights of appeal, for hearings, and to present their issue to the board.”

Past and future

For observers with a sense of history, this controversy presents some apparently contradictory elements. First is the fact that UC has arguably been as responsible toward its postdocs as any other system or university in the United States. In an effort that spanned several years and all 10 UC campuses, dozens of administrators from across the state worked together to develop an innovative and unified benefits plan for all the vast system’s postdocs, including first-in-the-nation uniform health coverage that went into effect on 1 January 2005. As a byproduct of this process, UC for the first time learned the exact number and whereabouts of the postdocs working in its laboratories, information that is crucial to establishing how many signatures equal 50% plus one. So, in trying to help its postdocs, UC may have inadvertently cleared the way for the unionization attempt.

Second, in the glory days of the American labor movement, under the visionary leadership of Walter Reuther and others, UAW fought epic battles that helped win working men and women the right to bargain collectively and helped make this a middle-class country. These battles included the bitter Flint sit-down strike against General Motors and the bloody Battle of the Overpass at Ford’s gigantic Rouge plant, where company thugs put Reuther and colleagues into the hospital. Now it’s articulate, energized workers who are fighting the union.

So does that union history have relevance to the scientific proletariat now laboring in the nation’s laboratories? Though better educated, today’s postdocs do have a good deal in common with those unionists of yore, many of whom were foreign-born and all of whom put in long hours for low wages, without job security and at their employers’ mercy. But unlike the struggles of their grandparents’ day, the current unionization dispute does not pit ragged men and women freezing on picket lines against bosses threatening workers and their children with starvation if the workers dare to organize.

But because of the UC system’s immense size and California’s huge cultural influence on the nation, the decision that the UC postdocs reach about this second attempt to establish collective bargaining between postdocs and universities may well have important consequences not just for themselves but for their colleagues across the country.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.