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In 2008, University of California (UC) postdocs formed United Automobile Workers Local 5810 and acquired a contract two year later.7-9 This union represents ~6,000 postdocs across all ten campuses, a sizeable fraction of the U.S. postdoc workforce. In the following years, postdocs also unionized at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst (10-12), the University of Alaska (13,14), and Rutgers University (15). These unions produced clear benefits for their members. At UC, for example, postdocs across departments gained consistent medical, life, and disability benefits, salaries matching the National Research Service Award (NRSA) minimum, a clear paid time-off policy, a formal grievance resolution process, and the right to pursue career development activities on paid time (7,9). Additionally, this union promotes professional development using an individual development plan. That all five unions successfully acquired contracts demonstrates that unionization is a viable option for postdocs seeking to improve their working conditions.

However, postdocs seriously considering such actions should consider several additional points. First, unionization does not guarantee representation of all postdocs. For example, the UC union represents postdoctoral employees, fellows, and paid directs (9) however the UConn union represents postdoctoral fellows but not trainees(16), while the U of Alaska union only represents postdocs beyond their third year (14). Second, union members must pay dues and often, non-members must pay fees since they also benefit from the contract. At Rutgers University, for example, union members pay 0.75% of their full salary while non-members pay 0.64% of their full salary (17). Finally, unionization and contract negotiation can be difficult. At UC, for example, unionization initially failed in 2006 and only succeeded during a second attempt in 2008 (7-9). There was disagreement amongst the postdocs, some of whom created an anti-unionization blog (18). Afterwards, it took more than two years to negotiate the first contract; the university was accused of dragging its feet and members of Congress investigated the lengthy delay (7-9). Despite their benefits, unions thus should not be considered an easy or fast solution to postdocs’ problems.

In addition to unions, many other groups also work on postdocs’ behalf. The National Postdoc Association (NPA; see article in this issue) for example, has promoted the establishment of local postdoc offices and associations and has advocated for increased NRSA stipend levels (19,20). Numerous local groups such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC) and Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP) have given postdocs opportunities to network and pursue career development (21). In 2014, the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association negotiated an approximately $50,000 starting salary, higher than NRSA recommendations(22,23).Importantly biomedical academic research leaders have noticed the problems facing postdocs and are pushing for reforms (1,24). Unions thus are just one of many mechanisms aiming to improve postdoc life.

Amongst these organizations, unions have the advantage of being able to negotiate with employers as an equal, and their contracts’ terms cannot be unilaterally changed. However, they are not a panacea, their formation is non-trivial, and their confrontational nature may strain academic relationships. That multiple groups of postdocs have elected to unionize anyway illustrates the severity of the problems they face. Until the spotty benefits and career training, relatively low wages, and other issues are addressed, some postdocs will continue to turn to unions. For as James Oppenheim wrote in his poem, ‘Bread and Roses,’ “Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes, hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses” (25).

References

1. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(16):5773-5777.

2. McDowell GS, Gunsalus KT, MacKellar DC, et al. Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists. F1000Res. 2014;3:291.

3. McCook A. Postdocs unionize. The Scientist. 2003. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/22430/title/Postdocs-unionize/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

4. McCook A. UConn postdocs ink contract. The Scientist. 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/22740/title/UConn-postdocs-ink-contract/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

5. University Health Professional Local 3837. http://uhp3837.ct.aft.org/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

6. Benderly BL. A Union Contract Aimed at Preserving the Postdoc Experience. Science. 2004. http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2004/04/union-contract-aimed-preserving-postdoc-experience. Accessed March 30, 2016.

7. Cain B, Budke JM, Wood KJ, Sweeney NT, Schwessinger B. How postdocs benefit from building a union. Elife. 2014;3.

8. Gewin V. The spread of postdoc unions. Nature. 2010;467(7316):739-741.

9. UAW Local 5810. http://uaw5810.org/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

10. Benderly BL. Taken for granted: labor unions and postdoc disputes. Science. 2010. http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2010/03/taken-granted-labor-unions-and-postdoc-disputes. Accessed March 15, 2016.

11. Carmichael M. UMass contract may set precedent. Boston Globe. 2012. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2012/03/22/umass-amherst-postdoctoral-union-ratifies-contract-setting-precedent-for-other-campuses/EN4IHuRaDsCJCUq9iIjIPK/story.html. Accessed March 15, 2016.

12. UAW Local 2322. http://uaw2322.org/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

13. United Academics: AAUP/AFT Local 4996. http://unitedacademics.net/news/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

14. University of Alaska, United Academics. http://www.alaska.edu/labor/unac/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

15. AAUP-AFT Rutgers. http://www.rutgersaaup.org/members/postdoctoral-associates. Accessed March 15, 2016.

16. University of Connecticut Health Center, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. http://postdoc.uchc.edu/current/index.html. Accessed March 15, 2016.

17. AAUP-AFT Rutgers, Join the Postdoc Union. http://www.rutgersaaup.org/node/783. Accessed March 15, 2016.

18. Postdocs at the University of California opposing PRO/UAW. https://ucpostdocs.wordpress.com/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

19. Kaplan K. Postdocs: A voice for the voiceless. Nature. 2012;489(7416):461-463.

20. National Postdoctoral Association. http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

21. University of Pennsylvania Biomedical Postdoctoral Council. http://www.med.upenn.edu/bpc/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

22. Smaglik P. Activism: Frustrated postdocs rise up. Nature. 2016;530(7591):505-506.

23. Stanford University Postdoctoral Association. http://www.surpas.org/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

24. Biomedical research workforce working group report. National Institutes of Health; 2012.

25. Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim. http://unionsong.com/u159.html. Accessed March 15, 2016.

BPCNewsletter, Spring 2016 10