Why are postdoctoral researchers forming a union?

We are forming a union, like virtually all other employee at UConn, because we believe that it is time for postdocs to advocate for ourselves collectively and on equal footing with the University of Connecticut administration, particularly in an increasingly uncertain political and economic environment. We want to bargain and enforce our own terms and conditions of employment like the tens of thousands of graduate employees and postdocs across the country have done. Similarly we want a stronger voice in key policy decisions made outside the University but that affect us as researchers: federal funding for scientific research; compensation standards, such as the new overtime rules passed in 2016 by the US Department of Labor; and federal rules affecting immigrant and guest workers.

By joining with unionized academic workers nationwide we hope to make changes that will create more positive work environments for future postdocs and improve career pathways for future scientists in the US and beyond.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a legally-recognized process that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, UConn Postdocs would elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the UConn Administration and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, postdoc and graduate employee unions have successfully negotiated improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

Without collective bargaining, UConn has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements.

Why did we choose the UAW?

The UAW represents over 70,000 academic workers across the United States, including more postdocs and graduate student employees than any other union. More than 2,000 UConn graduate employees organized with the UAW in 2014.

Read more here about UAW success helping academic workers negotiate concrete improvements to wages, benefits and workplace rights.

The UAW has particular experience negotiating and enforcing strong postdoc contracts. The 7,000 postdocs at the ten University of California campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory approved their first UAW contract in 2010, and those at the University of Massachusetts approved their first contract in 2012.

In addition to drawing on the UAW’s wide experience bargaining contracts with university administrators, we can exercise a stronger political voice through the UAW.  With active members at more than 45 major campuses across the US, the UAW has become a strong advocate on policy issues that matter to us as academics, such as federal support for science funding and enhancing the rights of international research scientists.

Why a union instead of an advocacy organization?

Only a union with collective bargaining rights has the power to negotiate a binding contract with an employer as equals. With a union, postdocs elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the UConn Administration for improvements. The postdoc union at the University of California (UAW Local 5810) has used their collective bargaining rights to improve their wages, guarantee annual wage increases, secure paid parental leave, improve job security through longer appointments, improve protections from discrimination and sexual harassment, secure career development support, and more. Without collective bargaining, the university has unilateral power to change our working conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements.

Additionally, as more postdocs form unions, we will have a stronger voice to advocate on broader issues such as increasing public investment in research, better visa and immigration policies for international postdocs, and better working conditions for all researchers.

If we decide to form a union, who has the final say in what happens?

UConn postdocs are the Union. Once we win recognition, we will do the following to prepare for and engage in the process of negotiating a contract with UConn:

  • Elect a bargaining committee from among UConn postdocs.
  • Based on surveys, the committee will develop initial bargaining proposals; before bargaining commences, we, postdocs and research scientists will vote to ratify these goals;
  • The committee will meet with university representatives to negotiate in pursuit of our bargaining goals;
  • When our committee has negotiated a tentative agreement with the University they feel they can recommend, postdocs will vote whether to ratify it as our first contract;
  • If the committee believes it is necessary to use the interest arbitration process to secure a fair first contract, it would only enter that process after Postdocs voted to allow it
  • The bargaining committee will be aided throughout by experienced negotiators from the local union and our regional UAW representatives;
  • After a contract is finalized, the membership will elect representatives who help run the Union and help members with any problems they have in the workplace

Will international postdocs benefit from joining the UAW?

Arguably the UAW has done more than any other organization nationwide to improve conditions for international students and scholars. At UConn graduate assistants negotiated for their visa fees waived in their union contract.

For years UAW has fought hard to ensure that the contributions of guest workers are elevated and that the terms and conditions of their employment are improved. The UAW helped lead the fight to ensure that the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program was expanded after a lawsuit that threatened to reduce it. Recently the UAW helped lead the fight against the Executive Orders issued by President Trump which targeted international students and scholars.

The UAW’s commitment to international students and scholars stems from the leadership of international students and scholars themselves. Postdoc and graduate employee unions affiliated with UAW are often lead by international students and scholars, who serve in top leadership positions in local unions nationwide.

What are the rights of international postdocs to join the union?

International postdocs and researchers have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens. International employees have been instrumental in organizing and running the University of California postdocs (UAW Local 5810) and the University of Connecticut Graduate Employee Union (UAW Local 6950) union. Unionization can result in protections that are especially valuable for international academic employees.

What are union dues, fair share fee, and initiation fee amounts and when would we start paying?

We would pay dues/fees only after a democratic vote by postdocs approving our first contract. Dues are critical for providing us with independent resources that are not controlled by the University: we use them to ensure we have appropriate legal, bargaining, community and staff support to represent all postdocs. UAW membership dues are currently 1.095% of gross income and can only be increased by membership action (the membership in a few local unions, for example, have voted to increase dues to have more resources).

No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. In most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. The inclusion of a similar provision at UConn would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda, would be subject to negotiation with UConn, and contingent on ratification as part of our contract.

Most academic worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to fight for the best possible contracts with the administration. Under the UAW, there is a one-time initiation fee that is determined democratically in local union bylaws approved by members, the UConn Graduate Employee Union (UAW Local 6950) has a $10 initiation fee.

The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues, often leading to overwhelming majority approval of those agreements. For example, the base wages for UC postdocs have gone up an average of 25% since they ratified their first contract in 2010.  At the University of Connecticut, graduate assistants won an average annual total compensation increase of nearly 7% in their first contract.

Where would our union dues go?

It takes resources to have a strong union, from the earliest stages of forming a union for the first time, to bargaining and campaigning for the first contract, to enforcing rights under an existing contract, and advocating on policy issues that matter to membership.  Dues provide those resources.  See below for more information.

Dues generally cover all of the day to day cost of having a strong union, including paying for the best legal representation, staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies.  Nearly half of the dues stays with your local and the rest to the International Union.

For a great example of local union work helping workers defend their rights, see this summary of successful grievance handling at the University of Washington, or this story about how the union here at UConn has helped graduate assistants take on sexual harassment.

The portion of dues allocated to the International Union would support UConn postdocs in the following ways:

  • Technical experts to help negotiate on equal terms with UConn:
    • Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
    • Researchers who can help analyze University finances.
    • Legal advice where necessary
    • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall campaign to win a strong contract
  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the resources supporting UConn postdocs organizing for a union come from existing UAW members’ dues money)
  • Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]

Will we have to strike?

In Connecticut, we do not have the legal right to strike. This just means we will have to come up with other tactics to build power in our negotiations with the University.  In lieu of the right to strike, we also have the right to arbitration in the event negotiations reach a stalemate. This means, when our bargaining committee and UConn cannot come to an agreement, both sides take our proposals to a neutral arbitrator, who chooses the most fair options.

My PI does not have a lot of money. Will a union hurt our PIs or lead to fewer postdoc positions?

At other institutions where postdocs have unions, collective bargaining has not produced these results.  Because all union decisions will be made by postdocs, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining at UConn, just like the graduate assistants at UConn did when they negotiated their first union contract.

And as a union we will have access to UConn’s financial information that affects postdocs, which will make it possible for us to be well-informed and conscientious as we engage in bargaining. Both the union membership and the administration have to agree on a contract and neither party would want a result that hurts the quality research happening at UConn.  Collective bargaining simply means we can negotiate as equals in order to hold UConn more accountable to do the best it can do.

Empirically, the overall number of postdocs at the University of California since unionization in 2008 and RAs (and TAs) has grown at the University of Washington since unionization in 2004.  Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.

In addition, many PIs appreciate working with unionized researchers, because a union contract means PIs do not have to negotiate every term and condition of employment (from wages to health care to leave to childcare to non-discrimination protections to vacation to appointment letter terms, etc) and instead can focus on their research.

With a union, wage and benefits improvements are negotiated centrally through UConn’s administration, but likely, with the flexibility and encouragement for PIs who can afford it to pay their researchers more than the contractually mandated minimums. UConn is responsible for agreeing to terms that enable departments and PIs to meet contractual commitments.

In addition, a postdoc collective bargaining agreement can provide greater stability to help PIs predict how much funding they should write into their grant requests to support their postdocs.

Does everyone in a union have to make the same amount?

No UAW union for academic workers has negotiated a contract that prevents a supervisor or PI from paying higher than the guaranteed minimums in the contract. And because we as postdocs will make our own decisions about our contract we would likely not negotiate for or vote to approve a contract that requires all postdocs to be paid the same. As an example, we could propose a wage structure like the one that postdocs at the University of California bargained that includes:

  1. A minimum salary that exceeds the NIH base wage;
  2. Guaranteed annual wage increases;
  3. The right of PIs to pay above the scale; and
  4. Strong enforcement provisions that enable us to grieve through the union if we don’t receive contractual pay increases.

Would I be included in the postdoc union?

The UConn Postdoc Union aims to represent anyone who holds a postdoctoral position.