Postdocs Ask University of California to Stop Delaying Negotiations

I am a University of California postdoctoral researcher and I study how brain tumors evade chemotherapy. With this knowledge we could develop new cancer-fighting strategies to save more lives. I ran for a spot on the UC Postdoc Union’s (UAW 5810) Bargaining Team because I feel UC must address the financial hardship felt by the average overworked, underpaid postdoc. Now two months into negotiations, the UC bargaining team is refusing to even make a compensation proposal.

The UC system is a global research juggernaut, leading the nation in patents, inventions, commercial startups, and federal grants. Postdocs are highly-trained research workhorses central to this amazing scientific progress. We regularly work over 60 hours per week, generate billions in income for UC via federal and private funding, and produce thousands of inventions each year. While driving this economic multiplier, most postdocs live precariously paycheck to paycheck.

At current salary levels, most UC postdocs can barely keep their heads above water, let alone put away any money for the future. Let’s run the numbers. The average postdoc is about 30 years old, has a young child, and makes about $3000 after taxes. Median one-bedroom rent near UC campuses is ecplipsing $2,000 and for my campus, San Francisco, it’s around $3,500. Tuition for one child at UC’s own childcare centers costs $1,500–2,500. Then there’s food, utilities, transportation and other essentials; good luck to those who have debt from their 10 years of higher education. In short, we are PhDs that work tirelessly at the top of our fields, but do not make a living wage.

With operating revenues of over $26 billion, UC currently receives nearly $6 billion in federal research grants per year. UC press releases also trumpet $1.6 billion in private donations in 2015, and claim the money will be used for “virtually every aspect of the university, from faculty recruitment and student financial support to leading-edge research facilities.” Postdocs must be in the eye of this money hurricane; in our negotiations, the UC bargaining team has repeatedly stated that there is no additional support available for postdocs. Given that public research funding for UC has been shown to pay back threefold in economic activity, and that every state dollar the UC spends on research returns seven dollars in funding awards, I expected UC’s bargaining team to more readily see postdocs as a wise investment.

The union’s bargaining team made a compensation proposal at the first session in May and we have asked UC for a counterproposal at every negotiation session since. We have only received a non-binding “supposal” that included not a salary scale, but a single number: the federal minimum salary for overtime-exempt salaried workers. The message? “If we could pay you less, we would.” The UC bargaining team refuses to even give us a future date to expect a formal counterproposal. When pressed to explain their delays, their dismissive response was “you will get it when you get it.” The UC was reprimanded for delaying our original contract negotiations in 2010 and may again be violating its legal obligation to engage in good faith bargaining when it repeatedly refuses to bargain economic issues with the union.

I am a proud product of California public schools, from grade school through my doctorate, including studying at three different UC campuses. For 10 years, I have been a UC researcher in one form or another. I hope that someday I can inspire my kids to have a similar passion for science and for publicly-funded academic research, but current conditions for postdocs make that advice seem reckless. As it leads in research output, UC should lead the nation by setting a salary scale that reflects postdocs’ far-reaching contributions.

Our next bargaining session begins today at UC Berkeley. If UC truly values the contributions of postdoctoral researchers, it must demonstrate it by engaging in good faith bargaining.