How postdocs benefit from working together and building a union

Postdocs at the University of California are tackling the current challenges faced by postdocs in the USA by building their own union.

HFSP Long-Term Fellow Benjamin Schwessinger and colleagues
authored on Tue, 25 November 2014

The debate about the plight of the current postdoc generation has gathered much attention in recent years. More postdocs spend ever more time in this precarious employment stint on short-term contracts while competing for a limited pool of secure permanent positions. Most of the discussion so far has focused on highlighting the problems, while providing few tangible solutions and waiting for a ‘top-down’ change. However, postdocs at the University of California can tell a different story, because they are tackling many of the problems faced by postdocs, by building their own labor union, UAW5810. Much has changed for the benefit of all - ~6000 postdocs at the University of California - since the ratification of the first contract in 2010.

Figure: Illustration showing improved conditions for posdocs at the University of California.  The figure first appeared in eLife. November 21, 2014 (http://elifesciences.org/content/3/e05614).  Illustration by Kelsey Wood.

For the first time postdocs have a guaranteed minimum salary scale and guaranteed annual salary increases. In addition, postdocs benefit from equal and affordable access to health care benefits, career development rights, paid time off and sick leave, 6-weeks maternity leave at 70% pay, protection against discrimination, and a formal process for fairly resolving disputes. The standardization of organizational aspects of the postdocs’ experience enables postdocs to focus on their research without having to worry about adequate pay and benefits. By working together as a union, postdocs have also gained a voice beyond the campus in the political and social sphere, where they can advocate for the importance of scientific research.

Having a strong postdoc union at the University of California also leads to a vibrant postdoc community, as members are taking a collective approach to build networks with other postdocs and members of the wider academic society. These networks foster the professional development of postdocs and have already led to workshops on the tenure track process, grant and fellowship writing, ‘alternative’ career options for Ph.Ds, open access publishing, and immigration policies, to name only a few.

These are all major achievements for postdocs who have got involved and taken the lead. However, much can still be improved for the next contract in 2015. For example, the minimum salary scale does not reflect the high cost of living near most University of California campuses, especially important due to the absence of affordable childcare and housing options. In this case the Human Frontier Science Program Long-Term postdoctoral fellowship is an excellent example to aspire to as it pays well above the NIH minimum pay scale, provides paid parental leave for either parent for three months as well as a substantial monthly child allowance. A similar set of family-friendly benefits for all postdocs would reduce the economic pressure on postdoc families and make important progress towards reducing the gender inequalities that are widespread in academia. Postdocs are hoping to work together with the University to make this happen, because improvements at the University of California are felt far beyond the state borders.

Reference

How postdocs benefit from building a union. Cain, B., Budke, J., Wood, K., Sweeney, N., and Schwessinger, B. eLife (2014). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.05614.

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