Postdocs at UC have unionized

By now it’s officially official, but postdoc employees across the UC system unionized and got a contract with the university. Here are a few of the good things that came out:

  • experience-based minimum salary steps according to the NIH/NRSA pay scale – these are minimum pay guidelines, so PIs who feel generous can of course pay more. Why are minimum pay requirements important? Many postdocs are here for 5 years. With durations like that, the position is not “training,” it’s a job. And therefore we should treat it like a job. Prior to this contract, many postdocs were receiving well below the minimum that NIH recommends, even though they were funded by NIH grants. In addition, you cannot be a postdoc for more than 5 years — after that you should be hired as a staff scientist. Some PIs oppose this, because postdocs are “cheaper” than staff scientists.
  • health insurance – the UC administration wanted to slash benefits in a way that would ultimately end up cutting compensation.
  • workplace safety – suppose the lab you work in is unsafe, but if you report any violations your PI may fire you. Does that seem fair?

There are a lot of other things in there, especially with regards to time off, parental leave, and so on. There is a pernicious attitude in the sciences that if you have kids while a grad student/postdoc/pre-tenure faculty you are “not serious about your career.” If you have 6 years of grad school and then 5 years of postdoc and then start a tenure-track job, and wait to have kids until after tenure, you might be 38 or 40. Breaking this attitude is hard, but it’s really starts with establishing basic expectations and treating employees like people.

And that is why this contract is important. I think of it as a restructuring of the playing field — without rules from the University as a whole, PIs are incentivized to pay postdocs as little as possible and work them as hard as possible, trading on the reputation of their lab and the University to make the deal more palatable. This is not to say most PIs do this, but certainly some do. With this contract there is a minimum set of rules by which PIs have to play, rules which are in fact in accordance with recommendations by funding agencies.

In talking about this with faculty from different places, I’ve heard diverse perspectives on why this is a difficult thing for them to accept, the fears they have about being demonized or not being able to have the flexibility they feel is so important to being able to run the kind of research program that they desire. These are important concerns, and ones which can and should be explored as this new contract is implemented. However, I have heard no good proposals from them about how to address the real issues faced by postdoctoral employees, whereas this contract does just that.