Our colleagues at ScienceInsider yesterday posted news about the 350 postdoctoral fellows at Rutgers University voting to form a union, a vote certified on Tuesday by New Jersey’s public employment relation’s commission. The postdocs’ union will join a labor council on the Rutgers campus that includes the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, which already represent faculty and graduate staff.
Forming a union is the first step, but now the hard work of negotiating a labor agreement begins. Science Careers columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly has chronicled the status of postdocs for 6 years, including formation of unions at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) and the University of California system. While postdocs have advanced degrees and do work that’s typical of professional staff, they are also trainees, whether they are on fellowships or in grant-funded positions. This dual role is often used to justify low postdoc pay, and postdoc job security often depends on supervisor’s ability to maintain research-grant funding. Foreign postdocs, including those on H-1B visas, are susceptible to abuse.
What can Rutgers’s postdocs expect from its union? The experience of nearby UCHC may provide a clue. As Benderly reported in 2006, the postdoc union at UCHC negotiated an agreement on bread-and-butter issues, such as higher salaries, retirement benefits, and regular, structured employment reviews. While executives at UCHC claimed higher salaries would mean fewer postdocs, as of 2006 the number of positions remained about the same as before. Also, predictions of more problems between unionized postdocs and supervisors did not materialize. In fact, one postdoc leader noted that the contract brought “better respect from PIs”.