Brian Weitzner, a UW postdoc, calls his long beard a "playoff beard."
"It's really a visual measuring stick of how long this process has taken," Weitzner said dryly.
He opened the door to Johnson Hall at the University of Washington and was drowned out by a cacophony of chatter. People were kneeling on the ground writing "Atmospheric Science" or "Microbiology" on signs. The foyer was packed with dozens of UW postdoc's preparing to take their demands straight to UW President Ana Mari Cauce.
Despite successfully unionizing earlier this year, Postdocs United still hasn't been able to negotiate a contract with UW. After six months of meeting dodging and vague excuses, the postdocs want answers from university administration and, mostly, a contract.
In March of this year, Postdocs United won a months-long struggle to get UW to recognize their right to bargain in the first place. Back in October of 2017, a majority of UW’s 1,000 postdocs hand-delivered cards to President Cauce. Her administration dragged their feet and quibbled about the kinds of researchers that Postdocs United included in their bargaining unit, arguing that some should be considered faculty. A March 1 ruling from the Washington State Public Employment Relationships Commission (PERC) sided with the postdocs, allowing them to unionize. After one work-in protest and the threat of another, UW relented and announced they would not to appeal PERC’s ruling.
Despite bringing in lots of money through grants, postdoc work at the university is precarious and underpaid. They can be fired at will with only 60 days notice, which can be particularly rough for international researchers working on visas.
"The university has been engaging in delay tactics since we filed our petition for representation last October. This is a tactic," Weitzner said, "this is the UW delaying addressing these injustices. We all know that justice delayed is justice denied. We need a fair contract and we need it now."
Some of what that contract would give postdocs is health insurance, stronger sexual harassment protections, better pay, and an end to regular wage increase freezing.
These pay increases are standard, and are already budgeted for in the existing grants and contracts that support postdoc employment. But, UW put a stop to that.
"Postdocs used to frequently get wage increases. It used to be that was celebrated and accepted by everybody," Alex White, a postdoc in cognitive neuroscience, said. "Since May, right after we won the election of our union, we received notice that the raises would be suspended."
What's weird to White is that some postdocs have gotten their raises while others are having theirs held hostage. It's sporadic and unpredictable.
"The way I see it," White said, "they’re punishing us for unionizing. Basically now we have to bargain to get back to where we were."
When the protesting postdocs marched into President Cauce's office to deliver her a letter with their demands, she wasn't there (supposedly she's traveling on the east coast). Instead, Margaret Shepherd, Cauce's chief of staff, took the letter and tried to appease the crowd.
"Our goal is to get this done as soon as possible," Shepherd said to them.
"It should be done yesterday," someone yelled.
"When?" Another piped up. The rest of the crowd latched onto that—there was a chorus of "When?"
"We were told yesterday it would take two years," Weitzner said. It had already been six months. How much longer would they have to wait? How much longer would Weitzner's beard get?
It all felt very anticlimactic. The letter was delivered, no real answers were given, and all there was to do, yet again, was wait. But, Weitzner was optimistic. He said the administration's response was warmer than he had expected.
Outside Gerberding Hall, the administration building at UW, city councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Nicole Grant, executive secretary treasurer of the M. L. King County Labor Council, spoke to the crowd.
"This is worker power at its best," Mosqueda said. "You just voted to unionize with 60 percent turnout. That’s huge. Now it’s time for a contract."
Weitzner is trying hard to get there but UW is still dragging its feet.
"The major thing that’s holding us up is they’re refusing to schedule bargaining dates, they don’t do any work when we’re not at the bargaining table," Weitzner said. "They don’t pass us back counter arguments. There’s not dialogue that’s happening. This process is very collaborative—it needs to be a conversation."
Now, all they can do is await Cauce's response.
"We’re tired of waiting and we’re not going to stand for it anymore," Weitzner said. "We'll be back."