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.

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7 thoughts on “Postdocs at UC have unionized

  1. I am happy that the postdoc got unionized and obtained this. I was part of an effort to obtain something similar in Toronto. However, I want to disagree with one comment of yours:

    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.”

    There are plenty of reasons why you may want to either take some time off or to work part time during the period from PhD to tenure: you may have a hobby that you want to devote time to, or maybe you want to write a play, or whatever. If you choose to do this, you are going to look much less desirable and chances are you will not be hired. Anything outside of research that you devote time to means you are “not serious about your career”. In particular, if you are a research mathematician, this is career suicide. The committees will look at how much you have produced and how long ago you got your PhD, and the time devoted to other activities is not an excuse. Why should having kids be treated differently from any other kind of distraction?

    To give you a more concrete example that affects me: I had to quit Mathcamp. I used to spend a lot of time doing Mathcamp-related work. Not only I spent six weeks there every summer plus preparation, but I also worked as Academic Coordinator, chaired some hiring committees, drafted the qualifying quiz, and so on. This meant that I was producing less research, and it was not acceptable. I dare say that my participation in Mathcamp was more important — for me, for the mathematical community, and for society at large — than a random person having kids. If I had to choose between Mathcamp and a research career, then I feel no sympathy if you have to choose between children and a research career.

    There is this implicit assumption that having children is sacred and we all should sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of those who are having them. I reject such assumption loudly.

    • There are a couple of issues here.

      1) I think you have no idea of how much time having a child takes up versus doing Mathcamp. I certainly don’t know, but from watching people who have kids, I have the impression (which may be incorrect) that children take up a rather larger and portion of one’s time, and in particular, the scheduling is somewhat inflexible. You can read an applicant’s file tomorrow instead of today, but the kid has to eat today and tomorrow.

      2) I completely agree that the whole notion of “taking any time off => career suicide” is a terrible one. The real issue is that there is virtually *no* flexibility — not for having kids, not for Mathcamp, not for caring for elderly or ill family members. Nor for writing a play. Taking any kind of personal leave is considered a sign of weakness. And as we all know, the weak shall be eaten.

      3) Mathcamp, as you say, is contributing to the mathematical community. The real issue there is why that does not count as service, not a false dichotomy between having kids and doing Mathcamp.

  2. Hmmmm.

    So I’m going to take the contrarian position here across the board.

    The general effect of unions is that union members benefit, but this benefit is never free, and generally comes at the cost of there being fewer jobs. In this case, the expected effect will be the UC system somehow moving towards a system where it uses fewer postdocs. The “fewer jobs” is quite easy to imagine — you yourself mentioned that “many postdocs were receiving well below the minimum that NIH recommends”. But postdocs are not slaves, they are actually highly educated individuals making employment choices. So the “market clearing wage” for postdocs seems to be lower than some number that NIH made up. No reason it shouldn’t be — the government has no special insight into what the market clearing wage “should” be. Forcing the wage up will have the effect of increasing the supply of labor and decreasing the demand for labor. Econ 101.

    Similarly, regarding the “pernicious attitude”, I’m not sure why we would call that attitude pernicious. Given the current overall academic system, it seems likely to me that a professor who takes time off to have kids *is* substantially less valuable to a research university than one who doesn’t. What’s pernicious here? You talk about “treating employees like people,” but tenured professors are a very rare and specialized class of people. There are vastly more people who would love to be tenured professors than there are tenured professor positions. Therefore, it makes sense that the system will work hard to identify those people it believes are more likely to work extremely hard, and that largely means people with relatively weak family ties.

    • I don’t think it’s particularly contrarian — I think that there isn’t really a market clearing wage for postdocs in the Econ 101 sense that you propose. The reason being that if the UC says “look, budget this much for postdocs in your grants,” then PIs will do that and things will continue on in much the same way. Will some postdoc positions vanish? Possibly (probably?), but I don’t think it will be that dramatic. Furthermore, actual guidance and a base contract will make hiring a postdoc easier, administratively.

      FWIW, I think that had the UC system just established a base contract for postdocs and some whistleblower protections, I’m not sure postdocs would have been upset, and that there would even be a union.

      Now, on to the issue of kids (or any other kind of activity). I think that it’s armchair sociology to say that someone who takes time off to have kids is less valuable as a researcher. I question the assumption that weak family ties –> better research. Is there a real causation there? I know lots of excellent researchers with strong family ties. I think the attitude is pernicious because it is only loosely correlated with reality.

      Tenured faculty are a rare and specialized class of people. Untenured faculty are slightly less rare, and I know several people who have turned down this highly desirable position for much more money and free time.

      In particular, empirical evidence (I heard this in a talk given by Mary Ann Mason) indicates how family-unfriendly policies at universities actually drive away many talented individuals. So I stand by my “pernicious.”

      It’s subjective, of course.

      • Well, hard to say. I’m not implying the existence of some platonic single equilibrium “market clearing wage”, but if a large number of people are currently working for a wage that is below the new minimum being set by the UC system, then I suspect substantial numbers of jobs to disappear. How many depends on details of the job market and how high the minimum is — there are certainly many examples where a minimum wage makes small changes, and other examples where it costs lots of jobs.

        I agree that the idea that having kids makes you a better researcher is armchair sociology, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Speaking from my own experience, when I see people take large amounts of time away from research to have kids [or to do any other extremely time-consuming activity], I do think their research suffers relative to those who spend nearly all their time doing research. I know I get less done at work than the people who work 60 hours per week, and they get paid more than me and get promoted faster, and that’s OK. I guess to sum up, I have no problem with you questioning the assumption of a strong correlation between long hours worked and weak family ties and better research, but I don’t think it’s obviously wrong. Also, given the level of competition for tenured jobs, if there’s even a weak statistical correlation between not having kids and research, it may be quite rational for the university to discriminate on this basis. I doubt you can argue that there’s a negative correlation?

        Of course, I think tenure and academia are pretty broken systems in the first place, but that’s a different story altogether.

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