Usually a job promotion warrants a celebration – or at least a self-indulgent tweet – but when Iván Cruz scored a research position at the University of Washington after completing his postdoc there, he was more concerned about his diminished bargaining power than about finding a bottle of champagne. Just six months before his promotion, in June of 2019, the UW Postdoc Union ratified its first-ever contract after a win Cruz had helped secure. But academic researchers at UW do not belong to a union – at least not yet.
“The second I read the line ‘you're at the will and pleasure of your employers,’ I lost everything we fought for in the postdoc campaign from one day to another just because I switched positions,” Cruz said.
Starting in 2017, the UW Postdocs spent over two years fighting for their contract. During those years, UW promoted many of the same postdocs who organized the union to research staff positions. Although they would not be able to reap the benefits of the union they helped build, Cruz and others used their disappointment as a catalyst to unionize one of the last non-union corners of UW.
On Monday, Dec. 21, a majority of UW’s 1,500 researchers filed their representation petition with the Public Employment Relations Commission seeking to be certified as a new bargaining unit with UAW Local 4121, which represents more than 6,000 Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at UW.
Postdocs and researchers perform similar roles at universities. However, the academic world sees a postdoc position as a temporary stepping stone between completing a doctorate and becoming full-time staff or faculty at a university, according to Cara Margherio, a union organizer and researcher at the Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity. Although many postdocs hope to become full-time researchers, they don’t always take that route. And though many researchers were once postdocs, you don’t necessarily need a doctorate to do research.
UW Researchers United argue that unionized workers enjoy more benefits and less precarious employment than non-union workers.
According to the Researchers, the university can appoint and reappoint academic researchers on a monthly basis because there’s no minimum appointment length. And those appointments are not even guaranteed – UW can lay off researchers at any time and for no reason without notice or compensation. Meanwhile, in their 2019 contract, the UW Postdoc union won one-year minimum appointments and protections against sudden, unjust dismissals.
UW researchers also have less time off than postdocs. UW gives researchers a 15-day vacation minimum without guaranteed time off for UW holidays, whereas postdocs won 21 vacation days, three paid bereavement days per year, the day off on public holidays, and one paid personal holiday per year, according to the Researchers.
When it comes to raises, Cruz said researchers suffer from a lack of transparency. As it stands, UW researchers have no guaranteed salary increases or cost-of-living adjustments, and Cruz said UW stopped giving its usual 2% merit raises during the pandemic.
UW spokesperson Victor Balta said that while the State Legislature "did not permit a merit pool in 2020, there was a 2% merit increase in 2021. That percentage fluctuates year to year."
According to the UW Researchers United website, minimum wages for researchers have not increased in the past three years. Unionized postdocs, on the other hand, get salary increases with each year of experience, and their minimum salaries have increased 13% in the past three years.
Even with such clear disparities, Margherio said the pandemic presented challenges to organizing the researchers. The ability to work from home hampered access, and the virus itself made face-to-face interactions difficult, but, ultimately, “the urgent need for a union” enabled the researchers to “overcome all those obstacles,” she said.
The UW Researchers are in good company when it comes to labor organizing during COVID-19. A pandemic-induced labor shortage has given workers new power in the workplace, and we’re seeing that power exercised across the country. Workers took on big corporations such as John Deere and Kellogg’s in monthslong strike efforts. Closer to home, workers are tackling Seattle’s corporate giants where organizing once seemed like a pipe dream. The Teamsters vowed to build worker power at Amazon, and after workers in Buffalo, New York unionized the first corporate-owned Starbucks in the nation outside of airports and grocery stores, Starbucks workers in Seattle are following suit.
“We're a part of a growing, national movement, and we're really proud to be a part of that,” Margherio said.
Now, the ball is PERC’s court. The commission will review the workers' cards against an employment list provided by UW, and then if PERC verifies that the majority of employees signed cards, it will certify UW Researcher United as a bargaining unit. Then the workers can start negotiating with UW.
Cruz said he “wants to believe” UW will be amicable to their efforts, but from his experience organizing the postdocs, he knows that has not always been the case in unionizing at UW.
“The sooner that we can negotiate with UW, the sooner we can create a better workplace environment,” Cruz said.