Graduate Student Unions: Collaboration Pays Off for Postdocs


While graduate students are battling university administrators over their efforts to unionize, postdocs are taking a decidedly less confrontational approach. So far, it seems to be paying off. Take the 4-year-old Stanford University Postdoc Association, which represents 1400 postdocs on campus. The association has worked with the university administration to help its members obtain higher stipends, better health and family benefits, and improved working conditions. Stanford has even created and staffed a postdoc office to serve their needs, and it also supplies the necessary muscle.

One recent victory is the university's decision to set a $36,000 minimum salary next year for new postdocs--some $4000 over a de facto standard from the National Institutes of Health. "We didn't give [faculty] a choice," says cell biologist W. James Nelson, senior associate dean for graduate student and postdoc education at Stanford's medical school. "Postdocs are the engine driving academic research, especially clinical research," says Nelson, who runs an 18-person lab with five postdocs. "And improving their lot is simply the right thing to do." This fall Stanford also set a 5-year limit on service as a postdoc, in effect forcing faculty members to find a permanent position--with a competitive salary and full benefits--for any scientist deemed essential to the lab.

Stanford is one of some 45 U.S. institutions that have ponied up money for administrative offices to meet the needs of postdocs, who in the past decade have formed 48 associations. Until Stanford postdocs organized, says association co-chair Karen Christopherson, a neurobiologist, "we were isolated and disempowered. There wasn't even a formal grievance procedure." Indeed, until last year Stanford classified postdocs as "nonmatriculating graduate students," an undignified misnomer whose main benefit, Christopherson jokes, was a movie discount.

Campus leaders in the movement, who are laying plans for a national organization, say that they believe their approach serves them better than collective bargaining. "We've gotten a more effective response by not being a union," says Orfeu Buxton, a sleep and neuroendocrinology researcher at the University of Chicago and a member of the National Postdoctoral Association steering committee.

"More power to them if they can get what they want through requests and petitions," says Jelger Kalmijn, a research assistant at the University of California, San Diego, and president of the University Professional and Technical Employees, which represents some 4000 nonstudent research assistants in the University of California system. "But one day they'll come up against an issue they can't resolve that way." Union organizers also say that any agreement between individuals is subject to change unless it's written into a binding contract.

That possibility has already occurred to postdocs. A survey last spring found that 28% of Stanford postdocs favored joining a union immediately, with another 42% saying that they thought it might be a good idea. Only 3% said they would never join. "But there's concern that we'd have to give up some control and that it might add an element of mistrust to the relationship," says Christopherson. The issue is still under debate, she adds, noting that only about 10% of the members took part in the survey.

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