Unionize the Postdocs

Postdoctoral research work is poorly paid and highly unstable. It’s also socially necessary, crucial to solving big problems like climate change and pandemics. For workers and the public, postdocs must unionize.

Academic workers and supporters picket during a strike at the University of California Los Angeles campus in Los Angeles, California, US, on November 21, 2022. (Jill Connelly / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A wave of union activity is engulfing higher education, as best exemplified by last year’s University of California strike, which was the largest academic strike in US history. The focus of media reports and analysis of this upsurge tends to be on graduate workers and adjunct faculty. Comparatively little attention is paid to another subgroup of workers riding this wave: postdoctoral scholars. Like other academic workers, we receive low pay and have little job security, and we’re organizing to change that.

Postdocs are early-career researchers in our post-PhD journeyman years. We’re expected to be able to move anywhere in the country on short notice to start jobs in labs where we know nobody and have little job security. In those labs, we drive yearslong research projects and often provide the mentorship that graduate students don’t get from their advisers. In return, without union protections, we typically receive low pay, high expectations, and supervisors who might even control whether we can stay in the country.

This is not a friendly environment for unionization. Nevertheless, in recent years postdoc organizing has taken off on a large scale all over the country, mostly under the aegis of the United Auto Workers (UAW). It’s about time.

There is much at stake in this fight. Postdocs bring in billions of dollars in grants to universities, and the potential of our research outputs is worth even more. Yet a staggering 94.8 percent of us report that low pay negatively affects our personal and professional lives. Postdoc scholars often leave our positions after years of having been asked to sacrifice too much in terms of low pay, impacts on our mental health, and delays in starting a family.

Individual researchers suffer on account of poor conditions for postdocs and the resulting retention crisis — and so does the public, which depends on the work that we do. Making postdoc jobs sustainable is in the common interest, as our work is critical to solving the biggest problems our society faces, like climate change and global pandemics.

It is possible to create a scientific community that serves all of us, one that sustains workers and our research in the long term. As postdocs at UC, we have firsthand experience fighting for and winning contract provisions that will help build that kind of scientific community.

We are members of UAW Local 5810. When our union formed in 2008, it was the first stand-alone postdoctoral researcher union in the United States, and since then our efforts have raised the bar for postdocs at UC and at universities across the country. This was never more evident than during our strike last year, during which tens of thousands of academic workers at all ten UC campuses took to the streets. Postdocs struck alongside three other UC-UAW bargaining units, including those representing academic researchers, teaching assistants, and graduate student researchers. For weeks we walked the picket lines, and in the end, we won the best-ever contract for postdocs in the United States.

Under the new contract, the lowest-paid UC postdocs will see a 57 percent increase over the course of the contract, reaching $85,734 by 2027, and postdocs will get a minimum 7.5 percent increase each year between cost-of-living and experience increases. This increase raises our salaries to the very top tier of postdoc salaries nationwide. We also won eight weeks of 100 percent paid family and parental leave, up from four weeks — a huge boost for postdoc parents and caregivers. And for the first time ever we won an annual childcare subsidy.

Another key win was making UC more accessible for disabled postdocs by expanding our access process beyond the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA accommodations can take months of bureaucratic wrangling to secure, but under our new contract postdocs are guaranteed immediate temporary accommodations so that we never have to work under conditions that further damage our health.

We also won new rights to address the burdens faced by international scholars working on visas, who comprise 65 percent of postdocs — including guaranteed leave time to attend visa appointments, and longer terms so that we can avoid the arduous process of renewing our visas every year.

And we won historic protections from bullying and harassment, protections that for the first time cover all forms of bullying and abusive conduct, a critical victory in a hierarchical workplace where workers’ future prospects depend on supervisors’ approval.

For postdocs in particular, the strike was meaningful beyond just the material gains we made. Postdoc labor, like much other research and laboratory labor, can be quite isolating. On the picket lines, we found camaraderie and experienced what it’s like to be part of something bigger: to be in solidarity with thousands of other workers at UC and across the country who believe that we can create more sustainable, inclusive working conditions in academia, not just for ourselves but for the future of research.

The University of California is by far the largest employer of postdocs in the country. Nationally, our union represents 10 percent of postdocs. By striking and winning here, UC postdocs have changed the industry standards for postdocs everywhere. Our strike has already had repercussions outside California, as many universities across the country, including the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Princeton, and Yale, have since raised postdoc pay to stay competitive. These universities, however, do not guarantee annual step increases, comprehensive health coverage, or any of the other rights we won in our contract. If postdocs at other universities want to make those demands, they must join the movement and form their own unions.

There are now postdoc unions at a growing number of universities, including at the University of Washington, Columbia University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, all of which are part of UAW. Recently, postdocs at another major employer of postdocs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also filed for a union election after a supermajority of NIH postdocs and researchers signed union authorization cards.

The recent surge of union activity in higher education shows that the sector is at a crossroads. No longer will we accept that prestigious institutions must be powered by low wages and exploitative conditions. Academic workers have been told repeatedly over the past decade that there is no alternative to this model. Now it’s clear that a better university, one that behaves in the interest of workers and the public, is well within our grasp.