PostDoc Unions: Good Idea, or not?

ScienceInsider is reporting that Rutgers University postdocs have formed a union.  Rutgers becomes (at least) the third school in the nation to organize into a union, joining the UC system and the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington (edit: and it seems University of Washington and University of Massachusetts)

Is this a good idea or a bad idea?  Postdocs are sort of the limbo of the graduate/professional career.  Sometimes you need one more bullet point on your resume.  Sometimes you’re learning a new field to be a good well rounded scientist.  Sometimes it just feels like what ‘everyone does’ before that first real job.

You’re in the lab with grad students, but you’re not a grad student.  You’re paid better, and generally have more freedoms… but still bend to the will of the PI/research group.  No worrying about cumes or orals or dissertations, but sometimes feeling like you’re in a constant cycle of applying for real jobs.

The lead organizer of the union movement at Rutgers is quoted as saying, “By unionizing, we joined the rest of the university community.”  They’ll begin contract negotiations in the fall on issues such as wage, paid sickleave, benefits, childcare, and others.  But due to the transient nature of the postdoc position, not everyone feels it makes sense to organize.  Turnover is realatively high in the postdoc field.  Some UC postdocs also noted some questionable behavior on the part of union organizers as signatures were being gathered.

UC postdocs currently do not have a contract, despite having voted to organize almost a year ago.  You can follow the progress of contract negotiations here.  One of the updates notes a consequence of organizing during a state-wide budget crisis (emphasis in original):

[UC system] President [Mark] Yudof has publicly proposed in his June 17 letter to the UC community pay cuts and/or furloughs for all UC employees, including Postdocs. President Yudof is proposing to raise this issue with the UC Regents on July 14 and 15. To be perfectly clear, wages and leaves are mandatory topics of bargaining. Since we have formed a union and are in contract negotiations, NO CHANGES CAN BE MADE TO POSTDOC TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF WORK WITHOUT BARGAINING THE CHANGES WITH PRO/UAW.

So what do you think?  Are postdoc unions a good idea or a bad idea?  What about graduate student unions?  What would it mean if the postdoc union went on strike?  What benefits would organizing bring to the postdoc landscape?


  1. I’m split on the issue. I personally don’t like the idea of forming unions because University research is more of a lifestyle and less of a job. You’re expected to work hard in grad school (both as a student and postdoc) and constantly be thinking about research.

    That said, I’d like to see a nation-wide graduate student bill of rights. Such a document could clearly define a student’s roles and responsibilities. In my experience, many profs treat their grad students like sub-human help and blatantly dismiss the fact that their “employees” have personal needs/responsibilities. I recall several instances where professors abused their “powers” to make grad students perform mundane, irrelevant tasks (seemingly because they could) that ultimately ended up wasting time. Wasn’t so much of a problem for me, but a co-worker friend of mine had a wife and kids at home who were more important than regrading 300 exams for a third time.

  2. I’m not a big fan of postdoc unions because I think it contributes to the normalization of the postdoc as a “job.” Postdocs are supposed to be 2-3 year apprenticeships where you accept half the salary you could otherwise earn in exchange for exposure to some new skills and/or the opportunity to churn out papers. Developments like unions suggest that it’s reasonable to hire incredibly highly trained 30-somethings with families as technicians for years on end and then only pay them 30-40k a year.

    It also doesn’t make sense to me to pay into a union when I only expect to be a postdoc for a very short time, and where the threat of a strike would hurt me more than my PI.

  3. I agree with Matt. A postdoc is not supposed to be a job — I am unaware of people unionizing that sort of limbo-like state.

    Ultimately, this is the outgrowth of the oversupply of biological science Ph.D.s. Forming postdoc unions is a solution for the symptom, not the underlying problem.

    If multiple postdocs among chemistry PhDs becomes a trend, we are in real trouble.

    (Then again, it could be that they’re trying to MAKE it impossible for academics to have too many postdocs (by raising the cost). But then where will the pushed-out postdocs go? The job market doesn’t seem to be soaking them up…)

    • At the same time, having so many (likely) Chinese nationals become union members would be a really interesting political phenomenon — would they try to sneak this back home with them?

  4. Post-Doc unions are bad. It would only make things worse and make industry even more afraid of PhDs.

    If bachelor degree holders were allowed to advance to the levels of PhD holders in industry through their work there (not academia) than there would be far fewer PhDs and unions would not be necessary. This is practiced in Japan, it’s called ronbun.

    The academic pipeline is clogged because only one way is being given to students to advance their scientific careers, PhD research. We need another way!!

  5. Apparently there are more folks at UC who are not happy with unionization: I don’t know if they will be successful in their attempt at decertification but for sure the UAW people will get pretty tough on them 🙂

  6. This is good idea

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