Unionizing for Collective Power

When postdoc colleagues approached me last fall about the prospect of starting a union for UW postdoctoral researchers and fellows, I did not hesitate. Until recently, I had actually been a PhD student at UW and a member of the UAW Local 4121, the union of graduate students and other academic student employees. Thus, I had seen first-hand how a union on campus can benefit both its members and the community at large.

As a postdoc at the UW Applied Physics Lab, I study the physics of waves on the ocean surface. Our lab develops pioneering methods and builds unique measurement platforms, with the goal of better understanding wave physics and improving wave models. My research has applications for climate change, safety at sea, and marine renewable energy. My current project is on the use of buoy measurements to make a preview of the waves approaching a prototype wave power device, which may dramatically improve the efficiency of this renewable energy technology.

I enjoy working on projects that may help to solve some of our toughest environmental challenges. There are over 1100 postdocs like me at UW, each of whom are in some way tackling the big problems of the world. The work we do is vital for, as the university’s official mission states, “the preservation, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge.”

At the same time, many postdocs are at a critical point in their careers and personal lives. They may be applying for faculty jobs or research grants, starting families, or navigating visa requirements to remain in the country. Meanwhile, the cost of housing in Seattle is on the rise, pushing postdocs farther from the university. Although these issues effect many workers at UW, postdocs are relatively invisible on campus, and do not have the same say in our own working conditions and rights as many other UW employees. The main difference is that thousands of these other employees — like graduate employees — have formed unions and bargain as equals with the UW Administration.

Forming a union will empower us to perform our research with confidence, understanding that the only way to improve our own conditions is through a united postdoc community. For example, a union can demand better parental and family leave, minimum appointment lengths and annual raises, and more funding for career development activities. In fact, when the University of California postdocs unionized as UAW 5810, their new contract made gains in all of these areas. A union also provides a backstop (and legal grievance procedure) against discrimination and harassment, workplace safety violations, and arbitrary dismissal. As a union steward in graduate school, I saw the power of the grievance system to protect workers against such treatment.

One fundamental point is that these improvements and protections would not be just a win for postdocs, but for the university at large. More secure postdocs are more productive postdocs. And better treatment of postdocs will help UW to attract the most talented postdocs. In just six years, unionization has raised the average salary of UC postdocs by $10,000, yet the number of postdocs has grown by 9%. This is by no means a zero-sum game.

Finally, a union will further empower postdocs to advocate for larger goals benefiting its members and the university. Crucial issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, increased science funding, and gender equity have all been promoted by both the UC postdocs and UW graduate students, at the university, state, and federal level. Like many environmental scientists, an important issue for me is climate change, but yours may be something else. Either way, a union provides an outlet for postdocs to speak with a unified voice on policies that broadly impact our community.

To some, unionization seems drastic or radical, but my experience as a union member during graduate school taught me otherwise. It is not radical to ask for better working conditions, or a more stable and transparent contract. Nor is it radical to advocate for better policy-making. In fact, it is only through uniting together that we can achieve these goals.