The campaign to unionize the postdocs at the University of California (UC), already one of the strangest such sagas in memory, took another unexpected turn last month. After filing for recognition with the state's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) in September, the union that is trying to organize the UC system's 5800 to 6000 postdocs withdrew its petition in early November.

"Victory!" proclaimed the Anti-PRO/UAW Web site, which has been a leader in a countercampaign to persuade postdocs who have signed cards requesting unionization to rescind their signatures. "I'm glad that ... postdocs weren't taken advantage of by the union and that they were able to organize among themselves to fight what they felt was disrespectful behavior," added Greg Potter, president of the postdoctoral association at UC San Francisco (UCSF). Even a news story or two declared the unionization campaign finished.

But reports of the campaign's demise proved premature. The union, known as PRO/UAW (or Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America), had not, it turned out, admitted defeat. The petition's withdrawal, the union says, was a tactical retreat aimed at addressing a bureaucratic error in its application--an error it says it can and will remedy.

Who counts as a postdoc?

PRO/UAW had filed its claim under the provision of California law that makes unionization automatic if organizers present to PERB signed consent forms from 50%-plus-one of the relevant employees. California law also provides another route to unionization, however. With signatures from 30%-plus-one of the eligible postdocs, the union could demand an election to decide the issue. But the union has consistently claimed that it would obtain signatures from a "strong majority" of UC postdocs, according to UAW international representative Maureen Boyd, and it filed believing it had achieved that goal. PRO/UAW has not divulged how many signed cards it presented in support of its claim, but figures mentioned by Boyd indicate that they number in the 3200 to 3300 range, well in excess of the required 50%-plus-one.

"When we were organizing, we obviously did not have a list of who all the employees are," she explained in an interview. "We signed up about 500 to 600 cards that aren't on the list [of people officially classified as postdocs]. They identified themselves as postdocs and, in going through this process, it turns out they're not [officially] postdocs on the list." When these names were subtracted, the union found itself about 100 signatures short of the number it would need for automatic unionization.

The confusion and resulting bureaucratic setback arose thanks to the UC system's recent, massive, multiyear project to bring all its postdocs, who formerly worked under a wide variety of rules, job titles, and ad hoc arrangements, into a single administrative classification--with a common benefits package--governed by Section 390 of the university system's Academic Personnel Manual (APM 390). Those working at UC before APM 390 went into full effect, however, had the option of retaining their old job titles and benefits. Despite having Ph.D.s, doing the same work as postdocs, and apparently even thinking of themselves as postdocs, those who made that choice are not officially a part of the group that PRO/UAW is trying to organize. When the union discovered the discrepancy, it decided to withdraw the petition.

"That's it as far as PERB is concerned. Case closed," said PERB's acting general council, Robin Wesley, from her Sacramento office in November. To continue its effort, the union "would have to file a new petition and start the process over again."

More of the same

Despite this unusual development, it was déjà vu all over again on the propaganda front.

"A strong majority of postdocs signed up to form a union, and they clearly want a union," says Boyd.

PRO/UAW "blew it outright. It was a spectacular failure on their part," retorts the anonymous UCSF postdoc who runs the Anti-PRO/UAW Web site, whom we've previously called and will continue to call Anne T. Union. The signature-rescission campaign has been highly successful, Anne T. claims, estimating the number who rescinded at UCSF at 20% but offering no evidence in support of that number. She continues to accuse the union of dishonesty and deception in its organizing drive, and she suspects a shady motive for the withdrawal. Wesley says the PRO/UAW petition is "the first time that [employees asking to take back their signatures] was potentially a factor in a particular case," and PERB has yet to determine the legal status of such requests. Anne T. opines, "I have a feeling that [the union] didn't want those ... letters to be counted. They probably didn't want PERB to rule on how those ... letters [would] be used."

But PERB intends to rule on the issue anyway. Because PRO/UAW withdrew its petition before PERB had decided on the status of the rescission requests, Wesley said, "there was no need to make that determination, [but] we're taking a look at [the issue] because it could be a factor" in future cases. PERB intends to rule on the issue regardless of whether PRO/UAW files again.

Until PERB announces this decision, no one can know how many of the signed cards in PRO/UAW's possession constitute valid consents to unionization. Nor is there any way of predicting how postdocs will respond to a renewed organizing effort. Potter, for example, says that his association takes "no position" on the issue of unionization and wants "to be a conduit of information for both sides." Even Anne T. claims not to oppose unionization in principle--only the tactics she says were used by PRO/UAW. "If [the union] is open, honest, and transparent, I think that postdocs at UCSF would welcome discussion of" the pros and cons, she says. Boyd continues to deny charges of duplicity and insist that the union has acted openly and honestly and will continue to do so.

The withdrawal of the petition has already had at least one effect on UC postdocs. At the time that PRO/UAW filed, a process was under way to increase postdoc pay. The law, however, forbids any change in conditions of employment--including salary--while a unionization petition is pending. So the planned raise had to be shelved--temporarily, as it turned out. Now, with the petition off the table at least for the time being, the raise is again set to go into effect. One campus observer expressed the wry hope that this happens before PRO/UAW files again.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.