When, earlier this year, some 5500 postdocs in the University of California system considered whether to unionize, there were no anonymous antiunion Web sites and no campaigns encouraging postdocs to rescind their union-card signatures. Indeed, compared with a previous unionization effort in 2006, which encountered opposition and ended with the withdrawal of the union's petition, "Everything has gone fairly smoothly," says Matthew O'Connor, a bioengineering postdoc and chief union organizer at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, who also serves as president of Berkeley's postdoctoral scholars association.

But the smoothness of the process doesn't mean that the fabric of postdoc opinion is uniform. Despite the absence of organized opposition, interviews of  postdocs on seven of the 10 UC campuses yielded nearly as many postdocs opposed to the union as in favor of it, and they uncovered charges of shady union tactics and conflicts of interest. Science Careers also learned that UC officials have requested changes in the pool of postdocs the union will represent, a new wrinkle that must be ironed out before the UC system officially recognizes the union as UC postdocs' exclusive bargaining agent.

The Case for the Union

Even postdocs who support the union acknowledge that the UC system treats postdocs pretty well and better than many other institutions. Earlier this decade, the UC system took on the major bureaucratic challenge of expanding and normalizing postdoc benefits and working conditions across all UC campuses, offering a package of benefits comparable to those received by full-time university employees.

Still, UC's earlier efforts haven't solved all the problems, or so say supporters of unionization. For one thing, salaries are low compared with salaries for other professionals with similar training and experience. "A typical salary is $37,500 for a 30-year-old with 10-years-plus experience in the field, which is abysmal when a frugal rent on a room is often $900 or more," says Jennifer Bramen, a UC Los Angeles postdoc in psychiatry and behavioral science, who supports the union. "I think it would be great if the union could do something to increase the base wage by even a few thousand a year," she says.

Some postdocs just like the idea of a union. Martin Hudson, who spent 8 years as a postdoc, is no longer eligible to join the union, but he says unions are needed to level the playing field between disciplines and between labs. "Science postdocs are a relatively wealthy group of postdocs," he says. Postdocs in the social sciences aren't so lucky. "Even within science, different labs have different levels of funding," he adds.

Others worry that without a union, the needs of postdocs may "fall through the cracks." Postdocs should have a right to negotiate and recourse when they have grievances, argue two UC Berkeley postdocs who did not want to be named.

With the union, O'Connor says, "We now have the opportunity to participate in our workplace, to determine our wages and benefits, and to have a seat at the bargaining table, which we deserve as the backbone of research at the university."

Those opposed ...

Those who oppose the union often do so on philosophical grounds, or because they object to tactics they claim were used by the union organizers. Postdocs are a special, temporary body of employees for whom it makes no sense to enter into labor contracts, says Kenneth Drake, who just completed his postdoc in surgery and urology at UC San Diego. "The goal of a postdoctoral fellowship is to gain further education and training," Drake says, adding that UC already treats postdocs pretty well. "This chimeric role of employment/education affords us several concessions, including deferring student loans, increased time off ... plus sick and holiday leave, decent benefits, the ability to pay into the UC retirement plan, and the flexibility of participating in lectures, seminar, conferences, and classes."

Some opponents say that union organizers got a majority of postdocs to sign union-authorization cards only because they were aggressive and evasive on specifics and because they misrepresented the process. "I was asked to sign a card that asked for more information. I was told these cards were going to be counted and that in the event a majority of postdocs wanted information, then talks would be held concerning issues," says Jessica Sneeden, a UC Davis microbiology postdoc. Sneeden describes herself as generally supportive of labor unions and says she once was a member of the graduate student union at the University of Washington, Seattle. But she declined to sign the card after what she called 'disturbing' visits from union organizers.

It isn't hard to find postdocs on the UC campuses who oppose the union--yet this year, the California Public Employment Relations Board received fewer than a dozen complaints about the tactics of union organizers, PERB officials say. So why was opposition so muted? Michelle Juarez, a cell and developmental biology postdoc at UC San Diego has a theory. "We're just burnt out and tired," she says. "We've just moved on."

UC Supports a Bigger Union?

Even though the union petition has been certified, the union has another hurdle to clear before it becomes the postdocs' exclusive bargaining representative, says Anita Martinez, PERB's regional director, who certified the union's petition. It needs to be recognized by the UC system, but there's a catch: The UC administration is seeking to add to union rolls approximately 300 so-called paid-directs, postdocs who are paid directly by the organizations that provide their fellowships without the intervention of the universities.

Paid-directs were included in the proposed bargaining unit in 2006 but not this time. "In 2006, we found it really confusing to deal with the pay-directs," O'Connor says, adding that he was "a little surprised" by the UC request. "It became our impression [in 2006] that UC didn't want us to include them. We thought it would create a problem if we tried to include them this time [because] they don't get a paycheck from UC. It's difficult to keep track of them, and it's difficult to legally determine who their employer is. … We felt that the appropriate bargaining unit did not include pay-directs." Still, he says, "If paid-directs are included in the bargaining unit, we will figure out how best to serve them." Martinez adds, "If the union agrees to include them and the union still has a majority of support, UC will recognize the union."

So why does the university system want to include in the bargaining unit other postdocs who don't get paychecks from the university system? "We believe that based on a variety of factors that these approximately 300 to 400 positions share a community of interest with the others the union has sought to include," says UC spokesperson Paul Schwartz, who represents the UC labor-relations office.

Including paid-directs raises the number of signatures required for the formation of a union without a vote. But adding paid-directs seems unlikely to change the outcome, and it doesn't seem to be the point. "They [the administration] are not acting like this is going to keep anything from moving forward," O'Connor says. "Preparations for bargaining are under way on both sides. I'm not too worried about the outcome."

What Happens Next?

Once UC recognizes the union, postdocs who join will decide what workplace issues they want addressed, how they want those issues resolved, and whether they are willing to walk off the job if their demands are not met. (Some 11,000 graduate student teaching assistants, readers, and tutors did just that in 1998--and barely avoided a strike in 2003.) The union's bargaining team will then write proposals, postdocs will vote on them, and negotiations with the UC system will commence.

If a contract is approved, the union will start collecting dues from members and fees from eligible postdocs who choose not to join. Members will pay 1.5% of their earnings for union dues, and nonmembers will pay a fee equivalent to 0.9% of wages if they qualify for union membership. The union will represent all eligible postdocs, no matter whether they choose to join.

O'Connor believes the union can improve the lives of postdocs without limiting their scientific roles and opportunities. "We don't want to stop anyone from working 80 hours a week if they want to."

Text revised: 29 September 2008

Camille Mojica Rey writes from Campbell, California.
10.1126/science.caredit.a0800143