The (Possible) Postdoc Union Boom

Could postdoc unions be the next big thing in collective bargaining among academics? Recent filing at University of Washington could be beginning of a new round of organizing.

October 31, 2017

The past few years have brought unprecedented attention to the working conditions of academics off the tenure track. With that attention has come increased unionization efforts among adjuncts and graduate students on private campuses, following a major decision from the National Labor Relations Board saying they’re employees entitled to collective bargaining.

Could postdoctoral unions grow in number for the same reasons? Some experts think so.

“It is likely that there will be increased unionization efforts by postdocs” going forward, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York. “The reason is that they are another element of precarious work in higher education. Their working conditions have been the subject of various reports and raised concerns about postdoctoral salaries and the extent to which their appointments entail actual training.”

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, for example, in a 2014 report urged major reforms to policies governing postdoctoral employment. Too often, the report said, postdocs are underpaid and undermentored and spend too long in these positions before moving on to something better and more permanent -- if at all.

That paper and others indicate “there’s a real need for change,” Herbert said. “One way of getting that change is through unionization.”

Postdoc Unions Across the U.S.

The National Postdoctoral Association has defined a postdoc as an individual “holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” In other words, they’re supposed to be advanced, temporary trainees.

Within the last two decades, however, postdocs have become a plentiful, relatively inexpensive source of labor for the booming academic research enterprise. Not only is postdoctoral experience now expected in many fields, but Ph.D.s can land one postdoc after the next. The National Academies found that the number of postdoctoral researchers in science, engineering and health increased 150 percent between 2000 and 2012, “far surpassing” both the percentage increases in graduate students and in tenure and tenure-track faculty positions over the same period. Between 60,000 and 100,000 postdocs are estimated to be working in various research fields within the U.S. Those numbers are much smaller in the social sciences and humanities, but they’re growing, too.

That rapid growth hasn’t translated to widespread unionization -- at least not yet. Currently there are just five postdoc unions in the U.S.: across the University of California system, established in 2008 in affiliation with the United Auto Workers; at the University of Massachusetts, formed in 2009, also with UAW; at Rutgers University, formed in 2009 in affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors; across the University of Alaska system, except first-, second- and third-year postdocs, in 2010 and affiliated with the AFT and AAUP; and within the University of Connecticut Health system, in affiliation with University Health Professionals (AFT). Connecticut differentiates between postdoctoral fellows and trainees, however, and only fellows are covered by the union contract.

The Connecticut union predates the California one, but the scope of the latter union -- thousands of postdocs at research universities across the state -- woke higher education in general up to the possibility of postdoc organizing. A first attempt at organizing, in 2006, fizzled out but the 2008 election was decisive. The union’s eventual first contract streamlined employment policies, included modest pay raises and increased employment protections and other benefits, demonstrating that these efforts could produce meaningful results.

According to one study of the contract, the UC union established a wage scale that is in accordance with federal standards set by the National Institutes of Health, across all system campuses for all postdoctoral employees, with a minimum salary of $38,000. Prior to the contract, the common system salary scale started at $29,000. And indeed many universities' pay scales for postdocs lag the NIH standards. Standard health insurance for postdocs and their families also was included in the contract, in more generous terms than had been offered by the system since 2005. The contract also provided postdocs, for the first time, with no-cost life insurance coverage, accidental death and serious injury insurance, and short-term disability.

Subsequent contracts in California and elsewhere have built in on initial gains. In 2015, the Rutgers union voted to extend an earlier agreement through 2019. Updated improvements include a new minimum salary of $40,000 or a 2 percent pay increase, and a pay increase of more than 2 percent for each year of the contract after that. Increased support services for international scholars also were included.

A number of reports calling for reform to postdoc employment conditions have highlighted the lack of institutionwide policies governing these workers; in many cases, for example, the amount of family leave or vacation or lack thereof to which a postdoc is entitled (or is aware they are entitled to) depends on the generosity of their principal investigator. In response to such criticisms, more campuses have opened central postdoctoral offices to inform researchers of their benefits and otherwise assist them.

Rutgers is one such institution; it recently opened an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at its campus in Piscataway, N.J. Itzamarie Chevere-Torres, the office’s associate director, said the union and the office aren’t redundant, in that she often helps postdocs understand their major contractual rights. An institutional policy included in the contract, for example, is that no postdoc may work in that role for more than five years -- the limit recommended by the National Academies’ 2014 report.

The office also offers career development, something Jerome Kukor, graduate school dean, said it’s able to focus on because the contract clarifies so many other things.

Clarifying Things

“There was fuzziness within individual laboratories about whether postdocs were eligible for vacations or leaves of absence or family leave, and that’s all very clear now,” he said.

Echoing concerns voiced on other campuses, some wondered during Rutgers’s union drive whether collective bargaining with postdocs would negatively impact research efforts. If postdocs earned more, for example, would the principal investigators who paid their salaries through grants be forced to hire fewer fellows? Would the mentor-mentee relationship between postdocs and professors be fundamentally compromised? Kukor said that seven years into unionization, “this relationship has turned out to be a very good one for us.”

Labs are hiring postdocs at the same or higher rates than they were before, Kukor said, as postdocs -- who have few to no work-related obligations beyond research -- remain attractive employees. There have been no unfair labor practice complaints or grievances filed against the university by the postdoc union, either, Kukor said -- something of a surprise at Rutgers, where nearly all employees have long been unionized and have, at times, butted heads with management, in union parlance.

A significant item in the Rutgers contract is paid time off, separate from university holidays and bereavement. Full-time members of the unit get 15 days paid time per year. After four years, it’s 18 days. Faculty supervisors still have to approve the time off, but it can’t be “unreasonably” denied. 

Unlike Herbert, Kukor said he didn’t foresee a wave of postdoc unionization, since there hasn’t been much movement since the initial cluster of drives around 2010. Just recently, however, a majority of postdocs at the the University of Washington filed union authorization cards, in anticipation of a union election.

Andrea Canini, an organizer with UAW who is currently assisting in the drive at Washington, said that “postdocs around the country see the gains bargained by [California system] postdocs and want to form unions and bargain for improvements with their employers.”

Michelle Tigchelaar, a postdoc in atmospheric sciences at Washington who favors unionization, said she and her colleagues were in fact inspired by their peers in California. And like them, postdocs at Washington are looking for clear, standard policies about their employment in which they’ve had some say. For the moment, she said, “decisions about our employment are made by individual departments and PIs.”

Preliminary issues of concern to union supporters include pay, especially considering the high cost of living in Seattle; Tigchelaar said many postdocs receive a salary equal to or less than the NIH-recommended minimum of $47,848. Paid parental leave and affordable child care are also central themes in organizers’ conversations with hundreds of postdocs, as are just cause for termination and strengthened grievance procedures.

What’s Ahead

A university spokesperson referred requests for comment to an Oct. 11 letter to the would-be union from President Ana Mari Cauce. In it, she expressed disagreement with the eligibility of some proposed members, such as acting instructors and lecturers, as those are faculty members by university policy. But of postdocs in general, Cauce said, “I respect your right to organize and will not interfere with that right.”

Herbert noted that all postdoc unions, established and proposed, are on public campuses. Part of that is culture; faculty and graduate student groups on many of the campuses were previously unionized. In any case, there’s no reason that postdocs can’t unionize on private campuses; they’re not students, so it would be hard for institutions to argue that they’re not entitled to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. At the same time, they’re not managers, so institutions can't argue that they’re subject to a legal precedent saying that tenure-track and tenured faculty members are managers and therefore not entitled to collective bargaining at private institutions. Herbert said institutions with a religious affiliation could argue that they are exempt from NLRB oversight, as they have in many non-tenure-track-union bids. However, the NLRB has in recent years narrowed the scope of who qualifies as an employee who performs a religious function on a private campus.

Tigchelaar, at Washington, said that however liminal, the “postdoc position is a critical component of the path to tenure,” and, therefore, “defining who gets to be a scientist.” Still, by entering a postdoc position, she said, “many of us elect to make significantly less than we could in industry, and in fast-growing cities this pay could be prohibitively low.” Unionization is, of course, one way to counter that.

She added, “When postdocs at other institutions see what is possible, they will want to make these kind of positive changes, as well.”


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