Unionization of Early Career Researchers
Graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and research associates are among groups of academic researchers across the U.S. who are either organizing, or participating in, unionization efforts and votes. There are strong feelings either way about unionization. But there is also a lot of confusion, misinformation and an understandable sense of wariness on the part of those being asked to vote.
Part of the difficulty is in finding information that is truly impartial; on one side, the institution is providing one set of information; and the unions another. We have therefore attempted to try to provide an evidence-based resource here to answer questions about unionization by providing data and evidence to address concerns, combat misinformation, and provide fact-checking to claims that are made.
One thing to be particularly aware of is where anything is deliberately unclear, or there is a gap that attempts to guide you in a certain direction. Early career researchers are particularly attuned to attempts to mislead them, or lacking citations. So be particularly critical where there is a lack of evidence, or a statement that gives you more questions than answers. We are attempting to answer those questions here, and build up a repository of materials that at least allows a comparison, and to clarify what unionization does or does not entail.
Our own perspective
We should start by pointing out our own perspective. We believe the weight of evidence does point towards a number of positives over the negatives for unionization. There are numerous cases to point to of salaries and benefits being negotiated to the benefit of individual postdocs, and the benefits extend to those postdocs in more vulnerable positions, such as those on visas, in having greater protections and oversight being advocated on their behalf. But in addition to this, we take the perspective that institutions, and the research enterprise, actually stand to benefit from this kind of collective action. We ourselves have worked with unions, just as we do with postdoc and graduate student associations and other early career groups, in joint efforts to push for change.
At the first Future of Research meeting in Boston, junior researchers pointed to a need for greater connectivity within groups of junior researchers, and also between these groups and faculty and institutions. Unions provide a clear mechanism for this to occur, by not only bringing the groups of researchers together, but also providing a clear framework for them to interact, on a more equal footing, with their institutions.
In addition, we have found in studying the history of reform that grassroots efforts such as unions, and other collective action by early career researchers, have been a larger push for change than many top-down efforts. This ranges from the formation of the arXiv preprint server in the physical sciences; the formation of the National Postdoctoral Association and our own organization; and in ensuring that postdocs salaries have been raised.
Raises to postdoc salaries provide a striking example as a case study for the role unions can and have played. Salary raises have been recommended for decades, in a number of reports (most recently in 2018) not only to ensure that we do not select future researchers on the basis of their financial status, but also to wean institutions off the unsustainable movement towards propping up the research enterprise for cheap labor. Despite this, when a federal mandate for such a raise was proposed in the form of updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act, institutions actually lobbied against postdocs being included, and also pushed to lower the salary threshold. The only group that lobbied for postdocs at the time were the four unions representing postdocs, and the Department of Labor was won over by their arguments (For more details, see our paper on the Fair Labor Standards Act and postdocs).
Using the perspective of our members who sit on national efforts to push for change, it is clear that there is great inertia preventing change from those who control the research enterprise at the moment. This is understandable as many of them have succeeded in, or benefit from, the status quo. However, this frustrates efforts to effect change for the benefit of the system, rather than for the benefit of particular stakeholders. In a set of recent reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the need to push for change at institutions was clear, and two messages were explicitly stated in the webinar releasing the report on Graduate STEM education:
- The current research enterprise works well for the PIs, institutions and funding agencies who depend on the labor of graduate students and postdocs; however it does not work well for the very graduate students and postdocs it is supposed to be nurturing;
- Graduate students and postdocs should take the recommendations as a mandate to advocate for change at their institutions.
Unions can provide a mechanism to do these things. Therefore from our perspective, greater collective action by early career researchers in a variety of forms, including unionization, is a necessary part of improving the research enterprise.
However, these are the advantages from our perspective. We provide resources and discussions below in an attempt to try to provide more information for early career researchers, to try to come to their own decision. We hope to evolve this resource as more questions come in; please feel free to contact us by emailing or commenting below to ask for more clarity or about something we haven’t covered.
Frequently Asked Questions (in progress):
How will this affect my relationship with the institution/my PI?
The goal of unionization is create an organized collective of employees to represent their needs to the employer, and thus, union can change the relationship an individual employee has with their employer. As early career researchers, it is difficult to pinpoint who our “employer” is. From an individual perspective, the faculty mentor is the closest supervisor that has some amount of control over the work we do as researchers. Faculty oversee the experiments we complete in lab and they write and edit the grants that pay for paychecks and research supplies. However, these faculty mentors do not formally serve as “employers” of graduate students and postdocs. In fact, the Yeshiva ruling classifies faculty as middle management and so, while they have a supervisory role, they ultimately do not broadly set the terms of employment for individual graduate students and postdocs. Instead, institutions have more influence over the pay, benefits, and working conditions postdocs and graduate students experience. A number of examples can illustrate this point:
- Recently, Stanford University President and Provost announced an increase in postdoc salary to $60,000. The decision was not made by individual faculty members or departments, but by the university as a whole.
- Similarly, during the Fair Labor Standards Act, universities decided to increase salary rates for postdoc at the university level, not at the individual faculty level.
- During unionization drives at Columbia University and Harvard University, these universities were quick to increase healthcare and other benefits to demonstrate they were making strides to improve graduate student life.
From these examples, it is clear the universities hold the power when it comes to deciding wages and benefits for graduate students and postdocs, not individual faculty members. Thus, main bargaining goals for union negotiations, which aim at increasing salaries and improving benefits, would affect decisions made by the university overall.
Could unions interfere with the faculty-student relationship at the individual level? A peer-reviewed study asked just that and came to the conclusion that unionization does not impact the faculty-student relationship. In fact, the study found slight improvements in the professionalism in the faculty-student relationship and in academic freedom. Thus, there is no current data to support the idea that unionization would be detrimental to this relationship.
Where does the extra money come from - will PIs be forced to pay, or will the institutions cover costs?
If graduate students and postdocs unionize, they will likely see increases in wages and benefits. How will university’s deal with this increased cost? This is up to the university. A university could determine that the increased cost should be shouldered by faculty members. The universities could also decide to use overhead costs from grants or other money to increase graduate student and postdoc compensation. Unions have little ability to direct a university on how it should finance the provisions in the contract.
Will I have to strike?
Going on strike in the US is rare. In 2017, fewer than 1% of unionized workers went on strike. The most common reason for workers to go on strike is when negotiations for contract renewal have stalled. The union and the university cannot agree on specific aspects of the contract and so the union calls for a strike authorization vote. All union members are allowed to vote on whether they support the effort to go on strike. If the strike authorization vote passes (for UAW member unions, this requires 2/3 approval), then a strike date is set. Often, the threat of a strike can be enough to reach an agreement between the union and the university. This happened in 2015 when postdocs at the University of California (UAW Local 5810) called for a strike vote and then a tentative agreement was reached before the strike start date. If a strike occurs, the union encourages all union members to observe the strike. Some unions do this by requiring workers to go on strike in order to receive strike pay (a small amount of money to offset some living expenses during a strike). Union membership can be revoked if a union member does not observe the strike. However, nonmembers are not forced to go on strike by the union, though union members may encourage nonmembers to observe the strike as well. In some industries, the employer will call for a “lockout” of all union-eligible employees (both union members and nonmembers). During a lockout, workers are prohibited from working regardless of union status. There has never been a lockout of unionized graduate students or postdocs.
For two opposing views you can look at the Columbia University (institutional) website on unionization, and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers (the unionizational perspective) site.
The Columbia University sites on graduate student and postdoctoral unionization give their perspective on unionization efforts. Columbia points out that there are already student representatives on their Senate. They also provide a “What you Might Not Know” section. However the first item in that section (about 2% pay deductions) has already been fact-checked, and appears to be incorrect, according to an open letter by the Columbia University Postdoc Society, which points out that is 1.44% rather than 2% (which was itself fact-checked and discussed in a personal capacity by FoR ED Dr. Gary McDowell here).
The Postdoc workers site includes all of the materials from the hearings with the National Labor Relations Board. We would particularly recommend that you look at the evidence submitted by Columbia that postdocs are not employees. This includes the statement:
“Postdoctoral trainees are merely ‘trainees’ who, despite having a PhD degree, still require significant education, mentoring, and training in order to learn how to successfully conduct research.”
This, and the transcripts of the hearings (Day 1 and Day 2) are particularly useful to compare and contrast with the statements the university makes above, and to see how the arguments the institution and the union make play out together in conversation.
Our BoD member Dr. Jack Nicoludis, who has extensive experience in unionizations from time spent on the Harvard graduate unionization effort, has also fact-checked a recent letter sent to faculty with talking points.
The Columbia postdoc website compiles accomplishments made by other academic unions around the country.
UAW 5810 (University of California postdocs) have an infographic describing the accomplishments they have made.
Harvard Graduate Students Union has produced this graphic of the timeline of student unionization in the U.S.:
Discussion pieces and news:
In chronological order (bearing in mind that over time some issues have been clarified or come to light):
In The State of the Union, Beryl Lieff Benderley of Science Careers gives an overview in 2006 of the state of unionization efforts citing early examples.
In The spread of postdoc unions Veronica Gewin of NatureJobs discusses the wave of unionization again in 2010.
In Point of View: How postdocs benefit from building a union, postdocs from the University of California describe the history and benefits of unionization at University of California, written in 2014.
The (Possible) Postdoc Union Boom by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed discusses the unionization of postdocs at the University of Washington.