University of California staff researchers opt to form a union, joining postdocs


After 5 years as a postdoc—four of them at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles—molecular biologist Christina Priest hit the university’s time limit for postdoctoral appointments and transitioned to a university staff position as a project scientist in the same lab. Now an at-will employee in a job with no set end time, she says she finds her work “continuing the project I initiated as a postdoc … not enormously different, [despite] more responsibility.”

But she has less of something important: income. “I was making more as a fifth-year postdoc than I am making as a project scientist,” not to mention a “huge increase” in health insurance premiums, “from about $40 a month to about $260 a month,” she says. Beyond that, she has lost some of the fringe benefits she enjoyed as a member of the union that has represented the roughly 6000 postdocs in the 10-campus UC system since 2008, when it succeeded in a years-long effort to create the nation’s second, and by far its largest, union of postdocs. (UC graduate students are also unionized.) “It seems unfair to be doing a similar job and to lose benefits,” Priest continues.

The illogic of gaining experience and responsibility while losing pay and fringe benefits she had as a “trainee” inspired Priest to sign on as soon as she heard, in 2017, that the same union that represented her as a postdoc, UAW Local 5810, had a campaign underway to establish a new bargaining unit for people like her. The proposed new unit, Academic Researchers United (ARU), hopes to represent people who, like Priest, are UC professional researchers but neither postdocs nor tenure-eligible faculty members. These workers hold a variety of titles, including project scientist, specialist, and researcher, and people like them work under still other designations at other institutions. All, however, share a common goal: doing research and “contributing to the main mission of the university,” says Priest, who serves on the proposed union’s bargaining committee. A number “are also bringing in grant money” as principal investigators on their own grants.

If successful, the new unit would be, to our knowledge, the first exclusively for scientists in a status that, Priest believes, doesn’t get “the attention or respect that it deserves.” But, like many unionization efforts before it, the academic researchers are currently locked in a bureaucratic back-and-forth with an employer that appears reluctant to recognize a new bargaining unit. 

A strong majority

One of the first steps toward unionizing is providing evidence that a majority of the workers whom the new unit would represent do, in fact, want union representation. Organizers must either collect signed statements to that effect from a majority of the individuals in the affected class of workers—a process known as “card check”—or prevail in an election supervised by the government entity that regulates labor unions. ARU chose card check and in October of last year, Local 5810 submitted to the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) petitions for union representation signed by more than 3000 of the nearly 5000 eligible individuals. Then in November, PERB determined that ARU indeed has the majority of the relevant class of workers needed to establish a union.

The UC administration, however, has raised objections. As a result, PERB has not yet granted the group final certification. According to the ARU website, the administration stated that it “reasonably doubts the appropriateness of the proposed unit.” When asked, UC did not provide Science Careers a specific explanation of its basis for objecting. “We’re discussing and working through the composition of the unit, which is a normal part of the process whenever a new bargaining unit is formed,” UC spokesperson Kimberly Hale told us by email. “Once PERB certifies the UAW as the exclusive representative for the unit, then contract negotiations would begin.”

It’s not clear how long the process of clarifying the situation will take, and the issue has also drawn the attention of politicians. In January, state Senator Nancy Skinner (D), majority whip of the California Senate, sent a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano urging recognition of the union. ARU has stated its hope that, through discussions with PERB and the administration, the dispute “can be resolved amicably and our union can be certified.” Otherwise, PERB can hold a hearing to decide the issue.

Commitment to research

During the campaign for signatures, persuading people of the merits of unionization was not difficult, Priest says. That’s due in part to the proven efficacy of Local 5810. The union has negotiated a number of improvements in UC postdocs’ working conditions—including higher pay, 24 guaranteed vacation days, and 4 weeks of paid parental leave.

Academic researchers, on the other hand, lack all of those benefits and others beside. Beyond that, Priest says, in her new position she has “a little less security than a postdoc because I don’t have the union behind me.” She and other ARU supporters hope that their prospective unit will better their situation.

UC postdocs, for example, receive 12 sick days a year that become available at the start of work. Academic researchers with full-time appointments, on the other hand, accrue 1 day of sick leave per month and may only use the sick days they have accrued. Those appointed for more than half time but less than full time accrue only at a prorated rate. Postdocs, per their negotiated contract, can only be fired for “just cause” and can only be laid off for lack of funds and with 30 days written notice. Academic researchers, however, are at-will employees who can be fired or disciplined for a range of reasons and without notice. As a result, academic researchers often feel “a lot of instability,” Priest says.

Despite the general enthusiasm for union representation, “actually contacting everybody was the challenge,” Priest says. That’s because the potential union members work in many different fields, functions, and places—labs, offices, off-campus field stations, and even research boats—across the various schools and campuses that make up the university system, and with no network that connected all or even most of them. The term “academic researcher” was not widely used at UC before the organizing effort. As the postdoc union did for postdocs a decade ago, the new unit would help to establish identity and solidarity for a group not previously accustomed to having them.

But the biggest benefits will ultimately accrue to research, Priest believes. “We all feel that the best way to get really good research is to support researchers. … It’s good for research and it’s also good for the UC.”

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