Unions could be the best way to protect scientific jobs in uncertain times, says union president Anke Schennink.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the scientific community is on edge. The future of federal science funding remains unclear, campus inclusivity is under threat, immigration policy is in disarray, and entire academic fields – such as climate change research – fear the worst.
But with our four-year union contract, postdoctoral scholars at the University of California (UC) are showing how collective bargaining can ensure that science moves forward. For academic workers – and all workers – unions are necessary now more than ever to protect and advance our rights.
Melissa Agnello, a postdoc in the UCLA School of Dentistry, was deeply committed to a career in science. But the astronomical cost of living in Los Angeles nearly derailed her plans, straining her ability to make ends meet, let alone plan for the future. Dr. Agnello has since been able to stay on her career track because of the significant gains in compensation the union has made possible.
The postdoc pay scale in the new four-year contract for UC postdocs is the highest of any public US university, setting the bar for researchers across the country. In December, most postdocs received a 10% increase, and over the four-year contract the minimum starting salary will increase by approximately 42%. All UC postdocs will soon make more than $50,000 a year.
The union’s wins on promoting diversity and inclusivity at the university are also critically important in the context of widespread attacks on women’s rights. Studies show that universities that lack family-friendly benefits create a “baby penalty” that causes women to leave academia at much higher rates than men.
For Lydia Majure, a neuroscience postdoc at UC Berkeley studying language, becoming pregnant created untenable consequences. Facing the financial impact of unpaid leave, she was nearly forced to choose between her family and her career – which is no choice at all. Now, for the first time, UC postdocs have guaranteed, fully paid parental leave, in addition to a high-quality health benefits plan that includes dependents at very low cost. (Unionized postdocs at UMass (UAW 2322) had previously won parental leave in their contract.)
Another groundbreaking victory was reforming the broken process that has led to an epidemic of sexual harassment at UC and campuses across the country. In a set of important and transformative changes, UC postdocs now have a rapid, fair and just process for resolving sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. This process takes into account the extremely vulnerable situation of postdocs – especially when reporting cases of faculty misconduct.
The importance of making progress on these issues was not lost on elected representatives. A majority (28 members) of California’s U.S. representatives in Congress sent a letter to UC president Janet Napolitano urging the university to reach a fair contract with postdocs. As we’ve already seen, this political support will be essential under an administration that’s pushing an anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-worker agenda. In this climate, having a strong political voice through a union is of utmost importance.
Collective action will be vital to stop attempts to cut science and education funding, reverse climate change agreements, roll back safety regulations, attack immigrant communities, and the list goes on. On that note, in August the National Labor Relations Board affirmed the rights of student-workers at private institutions to join unions. Following the decision, Columbia grads voted overwhelmingly to join the 60,000 academic workers in the UAW and many more organizing campaigns are underway on campuses.
Last summer, postdocs at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab decided they needed to organize. For Nils Zimmermann, who is German, job security was essential to him and his young family. Nils and his fellow LBL Postdocs voted to join UAW Local 5810 in August and now have their first contract, which includes longer minimum appointment lengths (and by extension longer visas in most cases) as well as protections against visa delays. And, in the current political climate, it has never been more important for international postdocs to find the collective strength in numbers that organized labor provides.
In point of fact, it is essential that all academic workers across the country utilize our collective power to create progress at work, further innovation, and fight against attempts to move society backwards. We hold no illusions about the many challenges we face as scientists and workers. But as the new UC postdoc union contract makes plain, when academic workers are organized, we wield great power in the battle for justice in the workplace, and beyond.
Anke Schennink is President of UAW Local 5810, the union for postdoctoral researchers at the University of California, and previously worked in the department of animal science at UC Davis. UAW Local 5810 is part of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). Anke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.