BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—A congressional panel on Friday got a taste of what the past 18 months have been like for postdoctoral researchers at the University of California (UC) trying to negotiate their first-ever labor agreement. A hearing here at Berkeley City College left lawmakers and postdocs feeling equally frustrated with UC administrators.
In November 2008 a group of postdocs affiliated with the United Auto Workers were certified as the official bargaining agent for postdocs at the system's 10 campuses. Although not the first such group—postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center formed a union in 2003 and negotiated a contract the following year—the UC union is by far the largest, with its pool of more than 6000 postdocs representing about 10% of all U.S. postdocs. Among other concessions, the union is seeking raises modeled on federal guidelines for each year of experience, plus an annual 4% increase across the pay scale. The university has offered a one-time, 1.5% across-the-board raise in 2010. Despite 56 all-day negotiating sessions, the union and the university have yet to agree on a contract.
The hangup, according to UC Vice President for Human Resources Dwaine Duckett, is calculating the cost of any salary increases. Postdoc salaries are drawn from various combinations of university funds, grants from federal agencies, and other sources, Duckett told members of the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, and each source has its own rules.
His explanation didn't impress the committee's chair, Representative George Miller (D-CA), whose district adjoins the Berkeley campus. Miller pressed Duckett for an update on the university's progress on assessing the cost of annual raises. But Duckett declined to offer any specifics. "That information has now been requested by the UAW, it has been requested by the Congress of the United States, and we haven't seen it in a year," Miller told Duckett. "That raises some serious credibility problems about these negotiations."
Testimony from UC Berkeley postdoc Ludmila Tyler was intended to illustrate the kind of hardships the union seeks to ameliorate. A fourth-year postdoc in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, Tyler earns $37,400 a year, an amount she said barely covers even basic expenses because of the high cost of living in the San Francisco area. It's also well below the $44,304 recommended for fourth-year postdocs by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Tyler said her husband, who like her earned a Ph.D. from Duke University in 2006 and works in the same field, now earns $10,000 more than she does as a postdoc at nearby Stanford University.
Salary wasn't Tyler's only concern. She also talked about a lack of job security, describing a series of short-term appointments ranging from 2 to 12 months that she has held since coming to Berkeley. "I can never predict if I'm going to have a job in a few months or not," she said.
Duckett didn't comment on the financial hardships faced by postdocs like Tyler, and he painted a rosier picture of the negotiations. The university and the union had reached agreement on 29 of 35 contract provisions, he said, and he insisted that the university has bargained in good faith. "We look at the glass being 80% full in this case," he said.
After the hearing, Miller said he had serious doubts about the university's allegations that the union's offer would pose a serious financial risk and was "very disturbed" by Duckett's testimony. "What we learned today in this hearing is that so far there's no evidence that that's the case," Miller said.