On 11 August, by a vote of 2588 to 121 -- and in plenty of time for Labor Day -- postdocs at the University of California (UC) ratified their first union contract. The product of a year and a half of negotiations ending on 31 July, the 5-year pact provides modest pay increases and enhanced workplace protections to the 10-campus system's 6500 or so postdocs, who by some estimates constitute10% of the nation's total. When ratified by the university's Board of Regents, the contract will bring to a successful close a nearly 5-year effort to make PRO/UAW (known formally as Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) the postdocs' collective bargaining representative.

Under the agreement, many postdocs' lives should improve in a number of ways. The pact will do nothing, however, about the root cause of their plight, the dysfunctional pyramid structure of academic science, which encourages exploitation of young researchers. Such reform lies beyond the reach of any contract negotiation, of course, and would require the efforts of legislators, academic leaders, and funding agencies that currently tolerate, or even encourage, the present system. Within the limits of what a contract can reasonably be expected to accomplish, though, this one looks promising.

Raises and rights

The university is "very pleased that [the postdocs] have ratified the agreement. We look forward to a swift implementation of the contract," said Dwaine Duckett, the UC system's vice president for human resources, in a statement issued jointly with the union. PRO/UAW is "very proud of this contract," added union spokesman and UC Los Angeles postdoc Xiaoqing Cao. "Not only will postdoc compensation at UC be among the best in the U.S., but UC postdocs will also have unprecedented rights and protections." Neither side alluded to the protracted talks that ended only after the union began exerting political muscle to force a settlement.

In response to the agreement, Representative George Miller (D–CA), chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee who held a hearing in April on the then-stalled talks, issued a statement criticizing the "unnecessary delays that blocked a first contract for far too long," adding that those delays were "outrageous and needed to end," and that "it was clear that [UC] caused" the delays. In the same statement, Miller proclaimed himself "very happy" and hailed "a victory for economic justice" that brings UC postdocs "closer to getting the economic security they deserve."

The pay scale that causes Cao such pride is what caused the delays. For months, UC resisted committing to the regular wage hikes that eventually became the agreement's centerpiece. Pay will rise on 1 October for all currently employed postdocs, by 3% for those making below $47,000 and 1.5% for those earning more. On that same date, the first-year postdoctoral stipend of the National Institute of Health's Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA), currently pegged at $37,740, becomes the minimum salary for new hires.

Then, on 1 June 2011, the whole prevailing NRSA pay scale, which includes step raises for each year of experience and, except in very bad budget years, an annual across-the-board hike, becomes the minimum standard for all subsequent hires. From that date on, both types of raises will go to existing postdocs whose pay is at or slightly above their appropriate NRSA level on 1 June. Current postdocs earning less than the NRSA scale on that date will get boosts of at least 3% for 2011 and 2012 and 3.5% for 2014. By 2014, all postdoc pay should match or exceed the NRSA rates. "Nothing shall preclude the university" from paying above these stated minimums, the contract adds. Postdocs' health care premiums will also stay level for 2 years, despite rising costs for most other UC employees.

Under the contract, actual take-home pay will rise less than these figures suggest because of union dues and fees. Each postdoc will choose whether to join the union. Those opting for membership -- and the right to vote in union affairs and run for office -- will pay 1.15% of their salary in dues. Those declining membership will pay a "fair share service fee" of approximately 0.9%.

The agreement's 87 pages of provisions and 20 pages of appendices enumerate numerous significant rights, including 13 paid holidays (or another day off if research necessitates work on a listed date); 24 paid vacation days; leave for illness, pregnancy, childbirth, family medical issues, religious holidays, and bereavement; released time for required training; reimbursement for work-related travel; and more. Each postdoc is entitled to written evaluations at least annually and may elect to prepare an Individual Development Plan in cooperation with a supervisor. Postdocs may use libraries, sport and recreational facilities, and other university resources on the same basis as other employees. The contract puts in place detailed grievance and dispute-resolution procedures that include the rights to see and correct one's employment file and to have representation while a case is being adjudicated. Specific standards clarify rights during layoffs, which nonetheless occur at the university's "sole discretion." Union representatives will be available at or near each work site to advise and counsel postdocs. Union and university representatives will discuss at regular meetings issues that arise. In a concession that reportedly caused some members anguish, the union promises not to call or support strikes against the university.

But if the assessments of Cao and Miller are correct -- if UC postdocs will indeed rank among the nation's top postdoc earners, if the new workplace protections really are without precedent in so elite an academic system, and if the pact in fact heralds serious economic improvement -- these facts say more about the generally dismal circumstances of young academic researchers than they do about the prosperity and security in store for those employed at UC. The heralded new NRSA minimum exceeds by only $384 the average starting salary of this year's new general liberal arts graduates at the bachelor's degree level and falls $10,921 short of the average for all new college graduates, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, as reported by the Associated Press. It's an odd "economic victory" that so scantily rewards 7 years (on average) of demanding graduate study in fields that promise substantial economic impact. It's an even stranger "economic security" that rests on short-term, temporary appointments.

Securing those rights

Agreements, furthermore, do not enforce themselves. In a tragic example of contractual impotence, Sheri Sangji, the UCLA worker who died of injuries from a lab fire last year, was also a UC union member. Her University Professional and Technical Employees Communications Workers of America (UPTE-CWA) Local 9119 had a contract. (It expired 6 months before her injuries, but the university was nonetheless required to maintain working conditions unchanged while contract talks proceeded.) That contract, like the new postdoc pact (and state regulations), obliged UC to provide the training and safety gear Sangji needed to protect herself from hazardous materials like that which fatally ignited her clothing. California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health determined after her death that the university had provided neither.

A new UPTE-CWA contract, ratified in March 2010, greatly strengthens safety provisions and protects employees from retaliation for "identifying and/or expressing concern about any safety-related issue." The new postdoc contract does the same. Both documents thus highlight an essential reality of laboratory life: Professors with lucrative grants enjoy great power to run their fiefdoms as they see fit, regardless of what rules and agreements say. Nothing in the postdoc pact directly obliges the university to educate academic potentates about their responsibility to recognize and respect postdocs' new contractual rights. And postdocs who would stand up for their own rights must do so despite the fact that these people hold great power over the young scientists' future prospects.

Still, it's heartening that the contract earnestly seeks to prevent the kind of egregious abuses that postdocs around the country often confide to Science Careers. Such indignities include refusing to permit a scientist to take or return to work after maternity leave, or even to have time off for a parent's funeral. They involve insults based on gender or nationality, arbitrary firings, failure to reimburse travel expenses for conference presentations about the lab's work and other costs, denial of credit for work, and much more. Although many lab chiefs are humane and generous mentors, and most are at least fair and reasonable, some, as anguished tales make plain, comport themselves as workplace tyrants whose workers fear that they would jeopardize their professional futures -- and often their right to remain in the United States -- by asserting their workplace rights.

In such labs, the new contract will do little to secure the protections it requires; that would require a major culture change. The universities must take responsibility for making that happen rather than leaving it to vulnerable individual postdocs and their union supporters.

Experience on other unionizing campuses shows that well-intentioned faculty members often welcome the clarity a contract brings to questions of pay, leave, layoffs, and other formerly vexing issues. The new UC postdoc contract will not alter basic economic structures, but it can, if executed properly, give postdocs, professors, and administrators throughout the vast system the chance not just to improve life on their campuses but also to serve, as California so often has in the past, as a model to the nation.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1000085