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UC Postdoc Union Fizzles

2 November 2006 (All day)
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An attempt to form what would have been the first major union of postdocs in the United States has ended in failure. But supporters of the controversial effort at the University of California (UC) system say they haven't given up.

U.S. postdocs began joining together more than a decade ago to press for improvements in their working conditions and to clarify their ambiguous status on most campuses. But they have traditionally avoided affiliations with labor unions. So it was a shock to many in the scientific community when the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Workers Union (UAW) filed a petition in July with California's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) seeking to represent 6000 UC postdocs based on having collected a majority of their signatures. Some UC postdocs alleged that UAW representatives had collected signatures from many of their colleagues without fully explaining the implications of forming a union. Under state rules, signing up a simple majority of workers is enough to declare victory.

But yesterday, before PERB had ruled on the validity of the organizing drive, the UAW withdrew the petition. "About 500 to 600 of the signatures we had submitted were from individuals who are no longer postdocs," explains UAW's Maureen Boyd, who organized the drive although she's not affiliated to UC. "That left us 100 signatures short of the required majority, and we decided to withdraw."

PERB officials say that several UC postdocs had asked that their signatures be revoked. "But the petition was withdrawn before we got to the stage of counting signatures," says PERB's acting general counsel Robin Wesley.

"I don't think it would have been helpful for us to form a union," says pharmacologist Jerome Breslin, who heads the postdoctoral association at UC, Davis, and who had actively campaigned against the move. "We have been able to improve stipend levels and healthcare benefits through grassroots organizations on campuses and with help from the National Postdoctoral Association. Being part of union is a more combative approach that does not necessarily work."

However, Breslin acknowledges that some postdocs favor joining a union, and the UAW's Boyd promises that supporters aren't giving up. "Getting another 100 signatures is nothing," she says. "We will refile a petition at an appropriate time."

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