Taken for Granted: Labor Unions and Postdoc Disputes

The horrific faculty meeting massacre at the University of Alabama, Huntsville -- an act of unjustifiable violence perhaps unprecedented in American academe -- nonetheless focused national attention on the intense pressures and sometimes-murky procedures involved in tenure decisions. Assistant professors, however, are not the only academic scientists subject to severe stress from potentially career-breaking actions by superiors. A pair of recent, unrelated developments in Massachusetts highlights that postdocs are even more vulnerable to the vagaries of professorial decisions and often have far fewer and less effective legitimate means of drawing institutional attention to treatment they consider unjust or unreasonable.

The first of these developments is a lawsuit brought by Pedro Canovas, a former postdoc at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School in Worcester, against the school and his erstwhile lab chief, Dario Altieri, a professor of cancer biology, for alleged "breach of contract, ... wrongful discharge, ... retaliation, ... and prior restraint on publications." Acting pro se (as his own lawyer), Canovas says, in both court documents and e-mails to Science Careers, that he could neither get satisfactory resolution of his issues through university channels nor afford to hire legal counsel. His amateur efforts have already beaten off one attempt by the university to have the case dismissed.

I am a postdoc who has been ground up by the current system in U.S. academia, where most of us are foreigners who rely on visas to remain in this country.

--Pedro Canovas

The second relevant development is an apparently successful union-organizing drive by the postdocs on three of UMass's five campuses. Having collected signed union cards from a majority of the approximately 300 postdocs at UMass's Amherst, Boston, and Dartmouth branches -- attempts to organize Canovas's Worcester campus haven't succeeded yet -- the new union received certification this week from the Massachusetts Division of Labor Relations. It can now begin contract negotiations with the university.

Transparent and readily accessible procedures for airing and resolving grievances are, of course, standard features of union pacts.

A case of desperation

Canovas's case has no connection to the postdocs' decision to unionize, but, nonetheless, one cannot help wondering whether his story would have played out differently -- and less painfully for himself and his family -- had he had both access to better grievance procedures and union backing in pursuing them.

This column first introduced Canovas to readers just over a year ago as the pseudonymous postdoc then called Otto B. Doing-Better. "I am a postdoc who has been ground up by the current system in U.S. academia, where most of us are foreigners who rely on visas to remain in this country," he told Science Careers. At the time, he requested anonymity because he feared damage to his career. Bringing his case in court forced him to reveal his true identity.

Canovas says a falling-out with his principal investigator (PI), Altieri, started a cascade of damaging consequences. A native of Spain with a Ph.D. from the University of London, he was working at UMass on a temporary visa. He lost his job after the disagreement, Canovas says. With fewer publications than he had expected and a less-than-enthusiastic reference from his PI, he has not found another one. Because his visa is contingent on continuing employment, he stands to lose permission to stay in this country and, most importantly, permission to be near his American-born son Diego, now 5, who lives with Canovas's former wife. Remaining close to his child is his overriding consideration, Canovas says, but repairing his damaged career is a high priority as well.

Canovas attempted several appeals of his dismissal through the university, but he did not get satisfaction, he says. Unable to qualify for unemployment compensation because of his visa status, he has drained his savings. Believing he had exhausted all other alternatives and desperate not to be separated from Diego, Canovas took the drastic step of bringing his suit, which required him to begin educating himself in the intricacies of American law.

For UMass's part, "We deny the allegations," says Jean Kelley, an attorney in the university's Office of the General Counsel, adding, "We don't comment on pending litigation." But, she explained in mid-February, "We served a [second] motion to dismiss [the case] a couple of weeks ago." If that motion is not accepted and the case goes forward, she adds, "It probably would take a year or two" to be resolved.

This column cannot, of course, speculate on the validity of Canovas's claims. The case's disposition will likely depend on what the court determines about any agreement that existed among Canovas, Altieri, and the university at the time of Canovas's employment, and about what happened between the two men. It is clear, though, that Canovas felt alone and unprotected in a daunting and complicated crisis. Unable to obtain legal representation, he is on his own amid the complexities of an unfamiliar legal system.

An official relationship

Although not acquainted with Canovas's case, UMass postdoc Caleb Rounds believes that settling grievances is one of the most important reasons that UMass postdocs needed to unionize. Describing himself as a "rank and file member" of the new postdoc union, PRO/UAW, Rounds has previous experience with membership in a UMass union. He earned his Ph.D. in plant biology on the same Amherst campus where he now works and where graduate students are already represented by a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW).

In addition to organizing the UMass postdocs in Amherst, Boston, and Dartmouth, that million-member, AFL-CIO-affiliated national union earlier organized the postdocs of the University of California system into a statewide union called PRO/UAW (PRO stands for Postdoctoral Researchers Organize). The new UMass union is separate from its California counterpart but has adopted the same name. The postdocs on UMass's Worcester campus did not participate in the organizing campaign but can petition to join UMass PRO/UAW if a majority indicates that preference. The postdocs on the fifth UMass campus, in Lowell, already have representation through a different union, Local 888 of the Service Employees International Union. They belong to a unit for various types of grant-funded employees rather than a separate unit for postdocs.

"When you're a [unionized] grad student, if you don't get along with your PI, you have a relationship with the university, ... an official relationship," Rounds says. "There's an ombudsman. But as a [nonunionized] postdoc, if you have a bad relationship with your PI, you can just be fired. They don't have to give you any warning.

"I've known several grad students who didn't make it in their first lab" on his campus, where grad students are unionized, Rounds continues. Those grad students were "given the opportunity to find another lab. It's not like your paycheck and your health insurance stop." But get fired as a nonunionized postdoc, he says, "and you're done." You're "not going to get a recommendation" -- a potential career-killer. "If you have a capricious PI, you have no recourse. ... Anything can happen, and you've got nowhere to go."

Rounds emphasizes that in his experience, PIs are generally "very professional" in their relationships with postdocs. But, he says, personality and other conflicts sometimes arise, making effective grievance procedures essential to protecting postdocs' rights.

Another major advantage to membership in the graduate student union was health insurance, Rounds says. He participated in a university-subsidized plan, paying roughly $400 a year to cover himself, his wife, and their two children. "Then I became a postdoc and lost my coverage," he says. The family now pays about $10,000 a year for coverage through his wife's job. He hopes that a new union contract will provide something more affordable.

Another "central issue," Rounds says, is recognition and respect for postdocs' important role. "We as postdocs help to bring millions of dollars into this university. ... We should be recognized as professionals employed by the university, like the electricians" and other unionized employees. "We should be professionals and treated as such."

Whether the UMass postdoc union will live up to Rounds's expectations remains to be seen. But it doesn't take a Ph.D. -- or a law degree -- to understand that clearly defined rights and procedures, plus the backing of a union, can strengthen and clarify the position of a lone, impecunious individual seeking redress for perceived unfair treatment by a powerful member of a large institution.

PRO/UAW, of course, cannot do anything to resolve Canovas's situation. But whenever the next Pedro Canovas finds himself (or herself) at odds with UMass superiors on one of the unionized campuses, he or she may have an easier time thanks to the postdocs' decision to form a union.

Text updated, 9 March 2010.

Photo (top): Bill Bradford

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