FAQs for 4121 Members about Postdocs

Who is a Postdoc at the University of Washington?  What job titles do they have?

A Postdoctoral Fellow (Postdoc), according to the NIH, NSF, NPA, and UW OPA,  is “an individual who has received a doctoral degree and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path”.  Postdocs at UW are typically classified into four job titles: Research Associate, Research Associate Trainee, Senior Fellow, and Senior Fellow Trainee.  According to the UW OPA, Postdocs also are placed in other titles at UW, including Acting Instructor, Lecturer, or Acting Assistant Professor.

What kind of research do Postdocs do at UW?

Postdocs at UW are working on a broad range of issues, similar to Academic Student Employees (ASEs).  Postdocs do a lot of the same work as RAs – they are working on climate science, in physics labs, are practicing psychologists, studying dyslexia, curing infectious diseases, and work as social scientists and engineers.  While universities continue to produce highly skilled workers, there are fewer and fewer academic job opportunities for postdocs. As a result, many recent PhDs get funneled into Postdoc positions for years.  Where Postdoc positions used to be a brief stop on the way to a tenure-track positions, they have extended to years of work with more precarity.  This is all part of the growing trend of contingent labor in the academy.  But more equity can be created and it starts with unionizing from the bottom up.    

Have Postdocs at other schools unionized?

Yes! In 2010 Postdocs at the UC system unionized forming UAW Local 5810, which now has over 7,000 members and is the largest Postdoc union in North America. Postdocs at UC have won important rights and benefits since forming a union, and now have the highest pay scale of Postdocs at any public university in the U.S. Additionally, Postdocs have successfully formed unions at the University of Massachusetts, University of Connecticut Health Center, Rutgers University, University of Alaska, University of Oregon, and at universities in Canada.  

Do UW Grad Students become UW Postdocs?

It depends. Some Postdocs are continuing research that was part of their PhD at UW, while the majority are new to UW and have moved here to work on a specific project or with a specific Principal Investigator (PI).

What issues led Postdocs at UW to want to unionize?

Postdocs at UW are facing many of the same issues that Academic Student Employees (ASEs) initially faced when ASEs unionized – Postdocs work in isolation from each other, have no child care subsidy, need better parental leave, aren’t paid enough, can be arbitrarily terminated – and often don’t have much say in how their terms and conditions are determined.  Like student employees, they have been  working to ensure stronger protections against gender inequity and other forms of discrimination.  Additionally, as ⅓ of all Postdocs at UW are international scholars, they share similar concerns as international grad students in the current political climate. Overall, they lack power at work when it comes to getting the University to take action and address their concerns.  

When did Postdocs begin their unionization campaign?

Postdocs have expressed frustration with their working conditions and the Administration for years, and unionizing efforts have been in the works for at least the past six years.  Around that time, Postdocs at UW were inspired by the victories at UAW 5810 and came to Local 4121 and asked for help forming a Postdoc union at UW.  UAW 4121 members worked with Postdocs to pass a bill in the WA Legislature in 2011 enabling them to unionize.  Since then, there have been conversations among engaged groups of Postdocs, who have led forums and organizing meetings about forming a union.  In early 2016, a group of Postdocs attended a Local 4121 meeting to request support for their organizing drive, which members approved in a vote.  All of these efforts culminated in what’s going on now, the UW Postdocs United campaign, which began in earnest in February 2017 when Postdocs began to sign authorization cards to form a union.

What resources exist on campus for Postdocs?

As many Postdocs will tell you, there are minimal resources for them at UW.  The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) and the UW Postdocs Association (UWPA) offer Postdocs access to participate on UW committees and organizations that deliberate on matters that affect campus employees.  OPA and UWPA work diligently to create networks and resources for Postdocs.  But,  it’s also important for Postdocs to have their own organization with resources separate from that of their employer.  While OPA, UWPA, and their union will be able to work together in complementary ways, much in the same way that GPSS and ASUW do with Local 4121, Postdocs will gain important resources they currently lack by forming a union and bargaining as equals with the UW Admin over their salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

How will Postdocs be incorporated into UAW Local 4121?

At the UAW 4121 January 2016 membership meeting, a group of Postdocs gave a presentation sharing their experiences, desire to join Local 4121, and asking for support.  At that meeting, UAW 4121 members weighed the pros and cons, and voted in favor of Postdocs joining Local 4121.  It will make the entire UAW 4121 membership stronger with the Administration when Postdocs join the Local.

Upon joining Local 4121, Postdocs will operate independently in certain important regards. Once Postdocs have an election and unionize, they will begin their own bargaining process with UW.  Postdocs will vote on their bargaining goals, elect their own bargaining committee, and negotiate with UW for a contract specific to their working conditions and experiences.  Postdocs will represent a separate bargaining unit within Local 4121.  They will draft and vote to ratify bylaws that affect their unit only.  Additionally, some changes will be made to the Local bylaws, such as guaranteeing participation in the Executive Board for the Postdocs, and guaranteeing that ASEs have autonomy over their own contract bargaining and enforcement.  It is, of course, critical that ASEs work to support Postdocs in their efforts to unionize and bargain a first contract in every way possible.

How will the organizational structure of UAW 4121 change when Postdocs become part of the Local?

With 1,100 new members to Local 4121, the leadership will grow to better support and reflect 4121’s membership.  This means that both the Academic Student Employee unit and the Postdocs will have bylaws specific to each group’s needs, and all things for each unit will be done by people from that unit.

Will Postdocs and Academic Student Employees (ASEs) have the same contract and bargain together?

No, Academic Student Employees (ASEs) and Postdocs will be in separate bargaining units.  Each unit will have bargaining goals, proposals, committees, strategies, etc. that the members of that unit choose.  And both groups can work together as their needs dictate.  If both groups decide that having more robust protections against sexual harassment is a bargaining goal, for example, it’s possible that both groups will work together to have supportive strategies in bargaining that aim to achieve a very similar result.  In other matters, there may be different but complementary strategies: for instance, in the case of fee waivers,these are a necessary benefit for ASEs who must enroll in classes as a condition of employment whereas fee waivers are an important feature of professional development for Postdocs who may want to take a class or two to broaden their skill set. The relatively different significance of fee waivers as a benefit might dictate supportive but different strategies in bargaining for ASEs and Postdocs.

What does a Union with multiple bargaining units look like?

A union with multiple bargaining units, in UAW 4121’s case Academic Student Employees (ASEs) and Postdocs, is called an amalgamated union.  By being part of the same Local, this means both Postdocs and ASEs have more power at UW with less administrative burden because there will be only one organization of both groups rather than two organizations–one for each–doing basically the same types of work.  Amalgamated local unions are common within higher education (UAW 2110, UAW 7902, UC-AFT, Rutgers AAUP-AFT).  Under the UAW structure, amalgamated local unions are very democratic as each unit would have it’s own bylaws, officers, bargaining committees, and grievances.  Also, Local wide structure is voted on by all members of all bargaining units.

How will the regions and elected officers be sorted to include Postdoc participation?

According to the UAW Constitution (Article 35:3c), each unit will have unit autonomy.  As such, Postdocs will pick their own regions and decide which structure makes the most sense for them.  As they work at different times, locations and have different schedules, Postdocs may decide on a different regional structure.  

What about the Executive Board – the next election for these positions is in Spring 2019, how will Postdocs be incorporated?

In an amalgamated union, there is only one Executive Board.  It is up to our Local bylaws as to how many members are on it.  There are many different organizational configurations to choose from.  For example, should there be designated positions on the Executive Board for each unit? Should the Executive Board have at-large members?  How big is the bargaining committee for each unit?  How many stewards does each unit have, etc?  There are many different options for a democratically-structured Local.  The principles of such are laid out in the UAW Constitution to enable Local 4121 to meet the needs of each unit and everyone collectively.

How will this affect Academic Student Employees’ (ASEs) working conditions?

PIs (principal investigators) have stated in recent years that soon it will be cheaper to hire Postdocs over Academic Student Employees (ASEs).  No one wants a race to the bottom!  It is more just and equitable for everyone to organize – as wage labor in general is precarious and universities are running themselves more and more like corporations.  Everyone wins when the workforce organizes from the bottom-up!  By Postdocs unionizing nationwide, it will make it easier for contingent faculty to unionize, and then tenure track faculty to do so, as union members shift into these positions.

How does an amalgamated union support all of its members’ needs? (grievances, workgroups, campaigns, etc.)

As the Academic Student Employees (ASEs) and Postdocs will have separate contracts, they will have separate processes for dealing with grievances and contract enforcement working groups.  Some working groups may include members from the ASE unit and Postdoc unit, as some, such as International Solidarity working group, have broad implications for academic workers at UW.  Additionally, campaigns with community organizations, the Seattle labor movement, and coalitions work may include both units or not, depending on how the membership chooses to be involved.  

How does having two separate bargaining units within 4121 help build power for (academic) workers at UW?

Building a stronger labor union on campus is in everyone’s best interest! Having two bargaining units in one local increases the power of both groups by minimizing bureaucracy–making it easier to share resources and work together on matters of mutual concern.

How can I support Postdocs in their unionization efforts?

Visit uwpostdocsunited.org, learn about their campaign, and send them an email saying you’d like to help!