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Toss out that old image of scientists being too absorbed in their research to think outside the lab.
Neal Sweeney, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at the University of California (UC), had been involved in social justice campaigns before he and his fellow postdocs organized throughout the UC system in 2008. And as a member of the bargaining committee that won a historic contract with the university in August after 18 months of bargaining, he was encouraged to see so many of his fellow scientists take positive action to help bring the university to finally get serious about their contract.
“I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of people were engaged in what was going on,” Sweeney said. “It really kind of changed my view about scientists.”
Perhaps they were engaged because they knew things had to change at UC.
While the 6,500 postdocs perform vital research on topics that include cancer, stem cells, climate change, alternative fuels, and many other cutting-edge fields in science and engineering, their pay was often at the whim of administrators. They knew they needed better health and safety protections, strong contract language to protect from unjust dismissals and improved access to professional mentoring.
They achieved these goals in a five-year contract that was ratified by a 96 percent margin in August. Their union, UAW Local 5810, was organized through majority signup procedure in 2008. But the university stalled in bargaining. It wasn’t until the bargaining committee unleashed a “crescendo of activity” about three months ago to convince the administration to get moving toward an agreement. That activity included informational picketing by postdocs and support from academic workers at the university, who are represented by UAW Local 2865, plus visits by supporters to the chancellor’s office, and a congressional hearing by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee.
“You could tell at last they really wanted to move toward an agreement,” Sweeney said.
That agreement provides postdocs with experience-based pay tied to the National Institutes of Health scale, making then among the best-compensated postdocs in the nation.
No more will postdocs be forced into the difficult and awkward position of asking immediate supervisors for raises. “In many cases people languished at minimum scale for many years,” Sweeney said.
The contract also makes the postdocs a true partner with the university in securing a safe work environment, which is important when considering that postdocs work with radioactive materials and some seriously toxic substances.
Postdocs won a strong contract that was delivered through a tenacious two-year campaign, UAW President Bob King said.
“Cutting-edge researchers deserve a cutting-edge contract,” King said. “This contract would not be possible without academic workers demanding to be heard by the university.”
Jim Wells, director of UAW Region 5 where UC is located, reminded postdocs that their fight for justice has only begun.
“A contract is only as good as the will to enforce and defend it,” Wells said. “We look forward to a productive relationship with the university and to help it remain among the top academic institutions in the world.”
• Graduate teaching and research assistants at New York University are awaiting hearing dates from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on the fate of their petition to overturn a Bush-era decision that denied the UAW members the right to collective bargaining. A reversal of that decision would set a national precedent by acknowledging that employees at private universities indeed have the right to union representation and collective bargaining. The more than 1,800 members of Graduated Students Organizing Committee (GSOC)/UAW Local 2110 filed the petition in May for union recognition and an NLRB union election.
Sandra Davis contributed to this story.