Digital publication - Page 10

Roses with Pipettes

Biomedical Postdoc Unions in Academia

As midnight approaches, a researcher inspects the latest data, hoping the long day concludes with success. He holds a doctorate, works on high-risk projects, and yet earns relatively little. Alternative careers are his likely next step, yet relevant training is often unstructured and challenging to acquire. While facing these challenges, he also supports a family. He is a postdoc, the workhorse of the academic biomedical research machine.

The difficulties that U.S. postdocs face have long been known. Yet only two years ago, a critique of the US research system noted that postdocs are still "paid salaries that are quite low considering their extensive education”(1). A postdoc-led report this year confirmed this sentiment and noted that “scientists are not being prepared for non-faculty positions” (2). At some institutes, postdocs have turned to unions to better their working conditions. These organizations have improved workers’ lives in many industries, but are neither widespread nor frequently discussed in academic research circles. Since they may be beneficial and already exist at some institutes, it is worth considering what they are and what complications and place they might have in the world of postdoctoral scholars.

What does a union do? After workers vote to unionize, the union negotiates a legally-binding contract with the employer specifying wages, benefits, and work-related policies. Afterwards, the union represents workers who have a grievance with or are being disciplined by the employer, lobbies the government, and negotiates the contract’s renewal. If the employer breaches the contract, the union negotiates a resolution, may utilize an independent arbiter, and can initiate industrial actions. These include the strike, slowdown, overtime ban, and “blue flu” (the absence of workers on the pretense of being sick). Using contracts, lobbying, and industrial actions, unions thus improve working conditions for the workforce.

Though unions are effective in many industries, they would have several complications in the postdoctoral research industry. First, the postdoc - principal investigator relationship is a mentee-mentor relationship and may be strained by unionization. Second, postdocs’ success is based on their publication record, meaning industrial actions might jeopardize their careers. Third, productivity disruptions could cause collateral damage to other employees by compromising a lab’s ability to acquire grants and interrupting the mentorship of students by postdocs. Fourth, industrial actions could jeopardize collaborations with researchers at other institutes. Finally, as postdoc positions are transitory by nature, unionization might be perceived as an inappropriately strong tactic. Academic postdoc unionization thus has important issues that must be considered.

Despite these potential problems, postdocs at several U.S. academic institutes have successfully unionized. In August 2003, University of Connecticut (UConn) Health Center postdocs voted to unionize with University Health Professionals Local 3837 and signed a contract within seven months (3-6).


"Give us bread ,

but give us roses."

By Christopher Edwards, Ph.D.

Image Credit: Christopher Edwards. Background Image: Creative Commons / Public Domain Pics