Although tenured faculty usually get the credit and big salaries for scientific discoveries at the University of California, legwork for their breakthroughs is often performed by more anonymous postdoctoral researchers who earn less than $40,000 a year.
On Thursday, those 6,500 postdoctoral researchers stepped into the national spotlight with the announcement that they had ratified their first union contract with the UC system. The action came after an organizing and negotiating effort that began four years ago.
The pay raises are not huge, but experts say the contract will significantly change the research workplace environment at the 10 UC campuses and potentially across much of American academia.
"This will have a tremendous impact. Success breeds success and emulation. I think there is a good chance this will go national," said Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York. Beyond salary terms, the agreement is notable for establishing "professional dignity" when weakened finances at universities make employees feel vulnerable, he added.
The contract between UC and a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers is the first one of its kind in the country and affects the most researchers, officials said. Researchers at two other universities have union contracts that are combined with other employee groups, they said.
Jackelyn Alva, a UCLA postdoc in human embryonic stem cell research, started five years ago with an annual salary of $32,000 and today, with boosts from a fellowship, earns about $43,000. The salary is hard to live on, said Alva, a single mother of two.
"We are the backbone of research at UC," said Alva, who earned her doctorate in molecular biology at UCLA. The contract "makes us feel we are important," she said.
The compact will give 3% pay increases for most postdocs and 1.5% for those more highly paid. In exchange, the union agreed not to strike.
The five-year contract also requires all new postdocs be paid at levels recommended by the National Institutes of Health, which funds much UC research, and for other employees to gradually approach NIH levels over five years. The NIH scale now ranges from $37,740 a year for new researchers to about $48,000 annually after five years' experience. UC reports that its current starting salary for new hires is $340 below the NIH minimum, but that some previously hired employees are paid significantly less.
In addition, the agreement gives the union a stronger say in safety and health issues in the labs.
Norval Hickman, a psychiatry researcher at UC San Francisco who was a union negotiator, said that although less than half of the postdocs voted, 95% of those who did vote supported the contract. By ending uncertainties about working conditions, the contract allows researchers to focus "more on our science, which is why we are here," he said.
Nathan Brostrom, UC's executive vice president for business operations, said that the postdocs are "a critical part of our research" and that the contract is fair and balanced.
After a previous failure, the Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/UAW, or PRO/UAW, became the bargaining unit in 2008. Negotiations began 18 months ago.
The House Committee on Education and Labor put pressure on UC with an April hearing on the negotiations. In June, the union filed a complaint with state authorities alleging that UC was bargaining in bad faith.