Postdoc Unions Empower Workers in UC Strike and Beyond

Sean McDonough

Sean McDonough is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

Across the University of California system, 48,000 academic workers are on strike, demanding better pay and benefits. Their numbers are bolstered by UAW Local 5810, a union of over 11,000 postdocs and academic researchers at UC schools. Local 5810’s participation in this strike presents an important question: what is the state of unionization for postdocs in America?

Postdocs and Their Working Conditions

Postdoctoral workers, or postdocs, are workers with a doctoral degree who perform mentored research, often at a university, with a stated goal of developing the postdoc’s professional skills. While these positions were once seen as 1- to 2-year training experiences, many postdocs today stay for much longer because of the competitive market for permanent positions. While postdocs are necessarily highly educated, they are not particularly well paid, with a 2016 survey finding a median annual salary of $43,750.

In addition, the structure of most postdoc programs, in which a postdoc generally works for a single mentor, lends itself to wildly varying work environments. Despite the promise of postdoc work as a training program, roughly half of postdocs do not receive a written performance plan or performance evaluation. This mentorship structure also creates power imbalances that give mentors inordinate control over the careers of postdocs, which can facilitate harassment and abuse. A 2016 survey showed that while 53% of responding postdocs were women, 71% reported having a man as their mentor. 28% of postdocs surveyed in 2017 by the National Postdoctoral Association reported being sexually harassed, and more than half of these victims felt their workplace was not helpful in reporting their harassment.

The Recent History of Postdoc Organizing

In response to many of these concerns, the postdoc organizing movement won a major victory in 2008, when postdocs across all ten UC campuses formed the University of California Postdoc Union (UAW Local 5810). The UC system employs approximately 10% of all U.S. postdoc workers, and they joined postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center, who unionized in 2003, as the only postdoc unions in the United States. They would not maintain that distinction, however, as the UC unionization precipitated a small wave of postdoc unionization at public universities. Postdocs at Rutgers University and University of Massachusetts both unionized within two years of UC postdocs and have since been followed by postdocs at University of Washington. The movement has also spread across the northern border, with postdocs unionizing across Canada, including several through the Public Service Alliance of Canada at Dalhousie University, Laval University, Carleton University, Queen’s University, and the University of Saskatchewan.

In 2018, postdocs at Columbia University formed the first postdoc union at a private American university because of their concerns over inadequacies they found in pay, leave policies, and safeguards from harassment and abuse. While Colombia argued the proposed union did not share “a community of interest,” the NLRB found that the postdocs and associate researchers constituted an appropriate bargaining unit and directed an election. Columbia initially requested review but later withdrew its request.

Postdoc unions have made real gains for their members. Columbia’s union won pay increases, paid parental leave, and new procedures to fight harassment and accommodate immigration concerns of international postdocs. Washington’s contract also included a pay increase and protections from harassment, as well as subsidies for public transit and childcare costs. After years of stagnation, the average postdoc salary at UC schools increased by 14% in the first four years after they reached a contract, alongside an expansion of health insurance coverage to all dependents. Unionization also provides the structure necessary to fight for further improvements, as UC postdocs are demonstrating with their strike.

Despite these successes, the vast majority of postdocs in the United States are not unionized. Columbia’s remain the only private-university postdocs to have successfully unionized, and most states’ public-university systems do not have a postdoc union at a single university. Even the National Postdoctoral Association, which says it works to “enhanc[e] the quality of the postdoctoral experience” and “secure positive change for postdoctoral scholars,” chose to take “a neutral stance on the unionization of postdocs.”

Barriers to Unionization

The workplace challenges facing many postdocs are clear: relatively low wages and insufficient benefits, negligent or abusive supervisors, and middling job prospects that force them to stay in postdoc positions for far longer than was once expected. Still, there are a number of factors that have made it difficult to organize postdoc unions around these issues.

One feature that makes unionization of postdocs difficult is illustrated by a recent series of tweets by Yale professor and sociologist Nicholas Christakis. After receiving criticism for his apparent opposition to graduate-student unionization, he clarified that he is “not anti-union as an omnibus political or philosophical stance” but that science is a “vocation” not suited to unionization. Broadened slightly, this idea of “academic exceptionalism” was also an obstacle for UC postdoc organizers, one of whom described “a long-standing culture of academics feeling like they need to sacrifice for their work or the calling of science … there is a kind of ‘suck it up and take it’ attitude that unfortunately people have internalized.” The temporary nature of postdoc positions may contribute to the motivation to “suck it up,” and regular job turnover makes organizing more broadly difficult, but this should be undercut as the time postdocs spend in their positions continues to increase.

Another difficulty in unionizing postdocs is the atomized nature of most postdoc work environments. Most postdocs work in a single lab where they are working with a mentor and a small group of postdocs, graduate students, and other staff. This keeps postdocs from different labs separate from one another and complicates efforts to build solidarity among postdocs at a university.

Finally, immigration concerns are a massive impediment to postdoc organizing. According to a 2016 survey, more than half of postdocs at American institutions are not US citizens, and many are required to remain employed to maintain their visas. A common refrain from international postdocs resisting unionization, according to one UC organizer, was that “I can’t do that, because I have a family and my visa will be taken away.” While international postdocs can understandably be concerned about losing their jobs as retaliation for unionizing, Columbia’s contract also showed the potential for postdoc unions to secure better protections for postdocs on visas.

Postdocs in the UC system, at Columbia, and elsewhere have demonstrated both the possibility of building postdoc unions and the tangible benefits these unions have for their members. While factors like academic exceptionalism and visa concerns are detrimental to postdoc organizing, once in place, unions have shown that they can help their members counteract these concerns. These tangible improvements to the working conditions of unionized postdocs should help future postdoc organizers rally support for unionization.

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