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Can Labor Unions Work for Postdocs?

In August, the postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) opened a new chapter in postdoc history and a new round in the debate over how best to improve postdoc working conditions. They voted to join University Health Professionals (UHP), a local of an AFL-CIO-affiliated national labor union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). UHP is a long-established bargaining unit at UCHC, representing 1900 of their 5000 employees. With their vote, this medical campus's 138 postdocs came to constitute the newest of UHP's approximately 170 job categories. Led and trained by experienced AFT negotiators, postdoc leaders will soon meet university officials at the bargaining table to work out a contract.

But how well does the labor union model suit the needs of aspiring research scientists? Many postdoc activists favor the less confrontational professional society model embraced by the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), the professional society founded in January 2003 under the aegis of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Next Wave) and funded by a Sloan Foundation grant. Indeed, the NPA Constitution explicitly renounces two of the labor movement's most reliable tools. "NPA is not, and shall not become, a union," states the first article of the organization's constitution." It "does not represent ... any class of individuals for the purpose of collective bargaining." Nor shall it "use ... lobbying activities." Instead, it seeks to "provide a voice for the interests of" postdocs, "gather information and build consensus regarding 'best-practice' policies," and to "enter into meaningful dialogue" with funders, faculty, university administrators, and others in order "to advocate for improvements in policies affecting" postdocs.

Despite these constitutional principles, not every member of the NPA executive board sees such a clear distinction. "I don't think that a union and a professional society are mutually exclusive," said NPA spokesperson Orfeu Buxton, who serves on its executive committee. "We share a common goal: Improving the postdoctoral experience. ... It's mainly a difference of approach." Postdocs are "all scientists," he continued. "We're big on data." NPA's founders, all leaders in local postdoc associations, had found "a nonconfrontational data-based collaborative approach" effective in dealing with administrators and faculty on their campuses. In several cases, surveys they carried out revealed "riveting" information on inequities that galvanized university leaders into making changes.

Administrators often lacked even the most basic data, such as the number of postdocs at an institution and what they are paid. The survey results, however, were "so compelling that [one] dean turned to the person who should have had that data" and ordered him to collect it immediately, Buxton said. A major NPA goal will be continuing to develop sound information about the situation of postdocs. "We do not impute malevolent motivations to deans and administrators," Buxton continued. "We would like to put people in a position to have the information to do the right thing."

But for the UCHC postdocs, a collaborative approach did not produce results. "There are no rules and regulations" governing pay scales, hours of work, sick leave, or vacation, says postdoc Ulrike Klueh, a leader in the union movement. "Pretty much any PI can make up whatever they want." "I myself was not in favor of unionization initially," says another movement, leader John Wagner. "I felt that we should give the university a chance to respond and to do something." But when the administration answered requests for improvement with a policy postdocs considered totally inadequate, "the unionization movement really began in earnest."

Cheering the movement on were postdocs' many lab colleagues who already belonged to UHP. At UCHC, "nonfaculty scientists like research associates, research assistants, and technicians ? are already in the union and they are an integral part of the laboratory structure," said postdoc Munirathinam Subramani, a unionization activist. Indeed, some of these unionized researchers "are for all practical purposes very much in the spirit of a postdoc ... here to get publications and ... looking for a faculty position," added postdoc activist William Loftus. But unlike postdocs, "they have protection, they have a grievance process, they have paid sick leave, compensation time, they have vacation time, and they have a pretty good base salary," said Klueh.

What they do not have is any "problem existing between them and PIs," said Subramani. Possible damage to the all-important mentoring relationship is a risk often cited by unionization skeptics. Indeed, on 12 September, Science magazine quoted NPA leader Claudina Stevenson as doubting that one can "bargain with your mentor for X number of networking opportunities and X amount of time" ( p. 1455). But, insists Subramani, "There is no evidence on this earth showing that the relationship will be spoiled because of unionization."

Studies of unionized graduate students and their mentors in fact suggest just the opposite, Wagner noted. A survey by Gordon J. Hewitt of five unionized campuses found that professors "generally do not believe that their relationships with students have suffered because of collective bargaining."1 Daniel J. Julius and Patricia J. Gumport reported finding "no conclusive evidence that collective bargaining in and of itself [compromises] the student-faculty relationship or the willingness to serve in a mentoring capacity." According to their data, "the clarification of roles and employment policies can enhance mentoring relationships."2

"What could impact that relationship worse than a faculty member telling the postdoc, 'You know, I'm only going to pay you $12,000 a year and you can't take vacation or sick days or maternity leave'?" Wagner asked. "One woman postdoc [here] was told by her faculty mentor that ... 3 weeks was plenty of time for maternity leave." As to the impossibility of mandating mentoring, "You can negotiate certain actions that can be taken on behalf of mentoring," he added. "We've had career development language in union contracts forever."

Nor need negotiations be acrimonious. "Our goal is to reach a voluntary agreement ... that'll be best for everybody," said UHP first vice president Renae Reese, herself on leave from a UCHC research associate position. Because, as state employees, UCHC staffers may not strike, stalemated negotiations go by state law to binding arbitration. "We've been bargaining collectively with the university since 1978," she continued. "We've only taken a contract to binding arbitration once."

The outcome of the contract talks will be closely watched in postdoc circles. "We're very empirical people," says NPA's Buxton. "If it turns out that unions work, that could be it. We don't know that that's the solution. We wish them luck because ... we would much rather cooperate with unions to achieve the goals that we have in common [than] compete with them or do battle with them in the press or elsewhere."


  • Gordon J. Hewitt, "Graduate Student Employee Collective Bargaining and the Educational Relationship Between Faculty and Graduate Students," J. Collective Negotiations Pub. Sector, 153 (2003).

  • Daniel J. Julius and Patricia Gumport, "Graduate Student Unionization: Catalysts and Consequences," The Review of Higher Education, 26(2) (Winter, 2002).