California Postdocs Embrace Union Contract

Postdocs at the University of California (UC) voted overwhelmingly this week to adopt a 5-year contract that would raise their pay and give them protections not guaranteed under the current system.

"I'm ecstatic. It's amazing," says Matthew O'Connor, a bargaining team representative for the PRO/UAW (Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/United Auto Workers), which will represent the postdoctoral researchers at the 10 UC campuses. "It really will improve things for a lot of postdocs, and it has the potential to improve things for postdocs everywhere, since we're such a huge chunk of the system," says O'Connor, a biochemist who recently completed a postdoc at UC Berkeley. The vote was 2588 to 121. The final step is approval by the UC Board of Regents.

The UC system has more than 6500 postdocs, accounting for roughly 10% of the postdocs in the United States. Their salaries will rise by from 1.5% to 3% this fall under the new contract, and then gradually conform with the standards set by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which lists recommended salaries for postdocs based on their experience. The NIH guidelines call for paying a first-year postdoc $37,740, rising to $47,940 by the fifth year.

University spokesperson Steve Montiel stresses that the NIH standards are seen as a floor, and one-third of the UC postdocs are already making above $47,000 a year. The process will take some time, however. Many postdocs are paid a fixed amount from grants from the federal government or other outside sources, and the university will have to make up any difference. "It'll cost UC millions more a year, but we're confident we can handle it," Montiel says.

Although the university retains the power to impose layoffs, the new contract forbids layoffs without "just cause." Postdocs also gained the right to file grievances for alleged discrimination or sexual harassment.

The postdocs agreed to a no-strike provision for the duration of the contract. "It was difficult to give up [that option] because it's a matter of conscience," says O'Connor about the promise not to walk out. "Some people consider a labor picket line to be a sacred thing that you don't cross if you're being asked not to."

For the university system, having 5 years of stability is a source of reassurance. "Research is so important to the UC mission, it's good to know there's a contract in place with a no-strike clause," Montiel says.

It took a year and a half for the union and the university to reach a consensus, which Montiel says is not unusual for first-time contracts. And he doesn't expect the new relationship to affect the day-to-day research experience at the universities.

The UC contract is not the first with a labor union for U.S. postdocs. The 125 postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center won representation in 2003 and negotiated their first contract in 2004, and postdocs at other institutions in New England have similar agreements. But the UC union is by far the largest unit.