Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

A 'Natural' Step?

On 20 July, the postdocs at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, received official recognition for their new union. It's the nation's third postdoc union, but the first to be part of the same union as their lab chiefs.

After a swift and successful signature-collecting campaign, the 350 postdocs on the university's three campuses became a bargaining unit of the Rutgers Council of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)-American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Chapters. Affiliated with both AAUP, the professional society for college and university teachers, and AFT, a national labor union within AFL/CIO, this hybrid group represents all of Rutgers's faculty members, research associates, and graduate student employees. A sister union under the all-university AFT umbrella represents the administrative staff.

I feel I do have an advantage if I can say, 'You're joining a group where we have a process, we have a union, we have built-in metrics. ... I'm offering you a position where you're not just a whim, just answering to me. You're part of the bigger system.'

--Lisa Klein

This step is one of several recent developments on the small but growing number of campuses across the United States and Canada where union efforts are under way. The developments range from contract negotiations to incipient organizing drives. Observers believe that they herald increasing postdoc unionization in the future.

Solidarity forever--with Principal Investigators

Becoming a bargaining unit alongside their bosses gave the Rutgers organizing drive a tone quite different from that of the two previous successful postdoc campaigns. At the University of Connecticut Health Center, postdocs overcame open resistance. At the University of California, opposing groups of postdocs faced off in a nasty, multiyear wrangle. But at Rutgers, the faculty's own union "pledge[d] total support" to the organizing effort, according to its then-president, Lisa Klein, a professor of materials science and engineering and herself a principal investigator (PI) who has supervised a dozen postdocs over her 30-year career.

Professors welcoming postdocs into their own union appears to call into question a couple of commonly heard objections to postdoc unionization: that it damages the postdoc-PI relationship and that it threatens grants and grant renewals by raising the cost of doing research. Instead, the step seemed "natural," Klein told Science Careers. "Our graduate students ... and our research associates are in the same union with the faculty, and here we had this group, the postdocs, who of course have many things in common with the students and ... the research associates, and they were ... in no man's land."

Klein's attitude grows out of her belief that her grad students and postdocs constitute her "legacy. I want them to speak highly of their experience at Rutgers. I don't see that the protections that they would have as postdocs in a union contract would in any way conflict with that." When she puts together a budget, Klein says, "if I know this is what it costs me, I'm going to put it [in]. I don't want to do [research] on the cheap."

Unionization also benefits PIs, she adds, especially in recruiting talent. "Some schools ... have the prestige. If MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] says, ‘I'm going to hire you as a postdoc,' they can go ahead. ... But Rutgers is a state university. I feel I do have an advantage if I can say, 'You're joining a group where we have a process, we have a union, we have built-in metrics. ... I'm offering you a position where you're not just a whim, just answering to me. You're part of the bigger system.' "

When postdocs lack full standing on campus, she continues, the PI is "always writing them letters so that they can get a library card, a parking decal--all these little things become a real nuisance." These should no longer be problems at Rutgers, she says.

"This whole union thing"

It was, in fact, a drive several years ago to solidify the position of campus administrators by bringing them into the union that first sparked interest in organizing the postdocs. As organizers spoke with "administrators, some of whom were in the laboratories, we would encounter postdocs very frequently," recalls Shaun Richman, an AFT national representative. "We had all these anecdotes of postdocs sort of sauntering up to us and saying, 'Hey, can we get into this whole union thing?' "

Another Bench-to-Business Opportunity for Postdocs Down South

For postdocs interested in joining the capitalists rather than the unionists, last month this column highlighted two innovative initiatives designed to launch postdocs on industrial careers. Here's a third: Started in 2008 by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, the Industrial Fellowships Program places citizen or permanent-resident Ph.D.s who live, earned graduate degrees, or held postdoc appointments in the state, and who lack Ph.D.-level industrial experience, in 2-year positions with Tarheel biotech companies. Starting salary is $40,000, supplemented by benefits worth $12,000. Well-qualified and savvy Ph.D. scientists could very likely land substantially more lucrative offers on their own, but the program serves a useful purpose by aiming to ease the way to a first industrial position for scientists unfamiliar with or intimidated by the nonacademic job market.

Then, "earlier this year, Rutgers AFT representatives [began] asking around to postdocs about their particular conditions and their interest in unionizing," says postdoc Alan Wan, who was "heavily involved" in the drive. "Obviously, since the faculty and the graduate students--the members of the community that we interact with on a daily basis--are in the union," many postdocs also became interested, he continues.

A major part of the union's organizing strategy was having a group of postdocs committed to the cause talk to other postdocs "to hear their stories [and] make the case," Wan says. "If we had a conversation with someone and they were really positive, we tried to get them involved," Richman adds. A second strategic step was talking with PIs, because "the postdocs are essentially the employees of the faculty, who are our union members," Richman continues. "We knew we had to have conversations with some leaders of that community. ... There [were] fears. For a principal investigator, I think the gut reaction is … ‘This is going to break the grant. We can't afford it. We're not going to get renewed.' "

But Klein, who discussed the union with fellow PIs, reports encountering no serious opposition. "Some jokingly said, 'So I can't abuse them anymore?' " she recalls. "There was no reluctance on the part of these PIs. They did want to see that the postdocs were treated as member of the community."

The talking campaign was done quietly, "one-on-one, usually colleague-to-colleague," Richman says. "There was no Web site, ... no leaflets." Once the organizers "knew we were in a position that we could get a majority of the postdocs to agree," Wan continues, "we officially started the card campaign" right after Memorial Day. The talking took several months, but the official campaign to collect signatures took under 2 weeks. State law makes unionization automatic if more than half of a work group give their signed consent, just as in California. "Two-thirds of all the postdocs signed," Wan says.

Wan sees an additional, personal advantage from his participation: getting to know a large number of young scientists in various fields. "In most people's careers, networking is a very important issue," he says. "It might not directly benefit my research today to be meeting with all these people, ... [but] 10 or 20 years from now, these are people I'm going to be interacting with as colleagues."

Beyond the Garden State

As experienced unionists know, getting recognition is only the first step. The next crucial one is negotiating a contract--a process that has been under way at the University of California since late last year. Although many initially expected a pact by the spring, the state's financial crisis has slowed things down and negotiations are now expected to continue into September.

Meanwhile, north of the border, negotiations have already resulted in the first contract for Canada's pioneer postdoc union at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which members unanimously ratified in late July. The 2-year pact, still pending university ratification, includes pay increases, severance pay, and paid vacations. At the University of Toronto, after a card campaign triggered a unionization election, postdocs voted on 10 August. It will be at least a month before the official outcome is known. At the University of Western Ontario in London, where postdocs voted to unionize in 2008, the administration continues to contest the right to join of postdocs it considers contractors rather than employees.

Nonetheless, "the university has agreed to begin the process of collective bargaining" with the postdocs it considers eligible, union president Martin Frasch of the University of Western Ontario tells Science Careers by e-mail. "One way or the other, there will be a collective agreement, regardless of the number of postdocs covered," he says. "We exchanged proposals in July, and the next bargaining is scheduled to commence in earnest in late October."

Postdoc unionization will also be spreading in the United States, Richman predicts. As a national representative for AFT, he conducted the Rutgers campaign "with the goal of sparking something on a wider basis." He says recent legislation in Oregon and Wisconsin opens the way: "In both places, the postdoctoral title very clearly falls under a faculty category," so they are eligible to unionize, "and in both places we're looking at forming unions." He cites "active organizing" in Oregon and claims to be "looking at other universities." In keeping with the strategy that worked so well at Rutgers, however, organizers plan to "keep it quiet until we put out the cards."

Photo (top): Ted Kerwin