Science Careers Blog

August 6, 2008

UC Unionization, Redux

As long-term readers know, we've been following the postdoc unionization issue for years, and the unionization drive at the University of California system almost since it started. Most recently, we posted a column by Beryl Benderly on the apparent success of the latest unionization effort.

The last time organizers tried to form a union, some people--including some postdocs--were opposed. But this time there was no evidence of organized opposition.

Still, since publishing Beryl's latest, we've received some mail from people who aren't happy with how things turned out, or with Beryl's treatment of the issue. But, interestingly, everyone we've heard from was involved--and had bad experiences with--the previous unionization drive. We've heard nothing bad--not a single complaint--about the recent, successful one.

Below, we're reproducing an email we received from Karl Magnacca, who was around for the first unionization drive but has since moved on to Trinity College, Dublin. He writes,

I am writing regarding the article "Taken for Granted: The Fat Lady Sings", about the postdoc unionization effort at the University of California.  It's frustrating to see AAAS be a party to the whitewashing of the previous unionization drive, as if the lies and deceptions that I experienced firsthand were spurious rumors spread by the cowardly caricature Anne T. Union. [Editor's Note: Anne T. Union was not a caricature, but a real person who requested anonymity.]  The fact that the leaders of current union effort actually use their names rather than hiding behind anonymity as before is, I suppose, a positive change from the previous time, when they refused to hold public discussions with postdocs.  But I'm still skeptical that this drive is any more honest than the previous one.

For the record, here is my own experience from 2006 (I am no longer at UC, but collaborate with people in my former lab at UC-Berkeley and still have an interest in what goes on there).  First, I was visited by a person who said she was a union representative during work time (which is illegal).  When I told her I needed to research it more, she explicitly told me that signing the card wasn't an endorsement of the union, but that if enough people signed, then an election would be held.  I did not ignore the fine print and pointed out to her that it said "I authorize the union to act as my representative", she again said no, that was just a statement of support, and repeated that an election on unionization would be held.  I signed in part because I didn't think that a fellow scientist would outright lie to my face like that--the last time I will make that presumption.

Later, I was one of many postdocs who wrote to the PERB to withdraw their signatures.  I don't know how many did so, but the perplexed messages that came from the PERB suggested that it was a considerable number. The claim, made by PRO/UAW after the failure of that drive, that they were only 100 short of a majority, and that this was due to turnover and miscounting of the number of eligible postdocs, is unverified and frankly untrustworthy.  It also begs the question of why they did not hold a vote, which would be the standard procedure if 30-50% of people signed cards.  I suspect it is because they knew it would be a catastrophic loss.  None of the 20 or so postdocs I asked supported the union, and in a widespread email I sent out, only one gave lukewarm support.  I doubt the ground has shifted so dramatically in two years, and I fear we will again see the same secrecy and dishonesty that characterized the previous union drive.

Karl Magnacca

A respectful correspondence followed, during which I argued that it was unlikely that postdocs--smart people--were the unwitting  victims of yet another dishonest unionization drive. I find it plausible--though I really have no idea--that the union used questionable tactics the first time around, then withdrew their petition, not because they realized they were a few votes short once the postdoctoral fellows were excluded, but because they feared the rising opposition and the potential for a legal challenge. In this scenario (which, again, may or may not be true), they learned from their mistakes and behaved better the second time around. In this scenario, there was no organized opposition because there was no reason for it. During the first drive, after all, opponents argued that they were not against unions per se; they were merely opposed to the union's tactics.

But this is all idle speculation. I'd like to hear from people who were there for the recent, successful unionization drive. No organized campaigns please; I'm looking for individual, first-hand accounts. Tell me what you witnessed. During hte most recent drive, did you sign the union card? Did you do so fully cognizant of the implications, or were you misled? Did you observe any illegal activity by the union? Email me at, or just enter a comment below.

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