Academic Organizing is Gaining Momentum and Innovation is the Big Winner

On August 23, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed the rights of academic workers at private institutions to join unions in a case brought by Columbia University teaching and research assistants. Days later in California, postdoctoral researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) formed the first union for scientists at a national lab. It's more than a coincidence.

At Columbia, academic student workers saw collective bargaining as a way to address issues hindering their teaching and research, like workplace harassment and an ineffective complaint process. They saw a way to advocate for fair pay and benefits - no more having their insurance plans cut without warning.

LBL postdocs similarly realized that democratizing the workplace was the way to address the issues creating distractions in their work. Too many can't afford California's high cost of housing, let alone childcare. Confronted with institutionalized gender discrimination and research interruptions brought on by short appointments and visa policies that just don't make sense, they decided they'd had enough.

For all these reasons, LBL postdocs joined UAW Local 5810, the union representing more than 6,500 postdocs at the University of California. UC postdocs have shown just how much organizing can accomplish. As came to light this year, UC has faced an epidemic of high profile cases involving sexual harassers in the upper ranks. It's embarrassing to UC and it's dangerous for victims, who typically have much less power and much to lose - like the entirety of a promising career.

This year in bargaining, UC postdocs made finding ways to address the sexual harassment crisis a major priority. UC was committed to the cause, as well. That doesn't mean a solution came easily overnight. But we were able to reach a solution by working together and we will all share the benefits.

The NLRB's decision affirming the right of academic workers at private institutions to unionize comes at a time when stakes are especially high. Increasingly, postdoctoral and academic researchers are leaving academia due to low wages relative to their level of education and an environment not welcoming to women and people of color. Not only do these inequities hinder scientific discovery, they are at odds with the progress and innovation our universities represent.

In this context, the difference in response to worker organizing by the UC and Columbia University administrations could not be more striking. While Columbia opposes their student workers' efforts to unionize - spending millions on anti-union lawyers and threatening to not bargain with their student workers should they democratically decide to unionize - the University of California, which manages LBL, has taken a decidedly different approach.

Under the leadership of President Janet Napolitano, UC is respecting LBL postdocs' decision to form a union and immediately sat down and began bargaining over a contract. In so doing, President Napolitano demonstrates that science, research and instruction are furthered by strategic partnership with workers and the labor movement. This makes the University workplace more democratic and inclusive, and also addresses income inequality.

Over the past years, the emergence of academic unions has finally given postdocs and academic workers a democratic voice in the workplace. Workers have won salary increases and guaranteed health care for the first time, and now have a democratic way to address grievances fairly.

UAW has historically been at the forefront of innovation as one of the largest, and most diverse and progressive unions in North America. In recent decades, more than 50,000 higher education workers have joined the UAW. The NLRB's decision has opened the door even wider.

Postdocs at LBL have begun bargaining their first contract, and look forward to a collaborative and productive relationship with UC. As all postdoctoral and academic researchers continue to democratize the workplace and give more workers a voice, we will be able to create stronger institutions and more prolific academic and research engines.