Carolyn Brotherton
Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Washington

Today, to land a job as a senior scientist within academia and, increasingly, industry, a Postdoctoral (Postdoc) position is required. When I decided to stay in science after my PhD to pursue the goal of being a professor, I didn’t have multiple types of jobs to choose from — the academic Postdoc was it. I love my research and my fellow Postdocs feel the same way. We are Postdocs because we love science and want to make a career out of it. But just because we love what we do doesn’t mean that we love everything about our job, and our love of our research definitely does not mean we should passively accept the current state of the Postdoc. This is why many of my peers and I at the University of Washington (UW) have been organizing to form a Postdoc union. After literally hundreds of smart and nuanced conversations, we have heard from the majority of Postdocs that they support unionization. We recently filed a petition with the state labor board of Washington to call an election this fall.

While we know that UW Postdocs are excited about the union, we have yet to hear from the Administration (Admin). We think it’s important to hear their voice, as the challenges Postdocs face and want action on are predominately related to issues we have as employees, including better protections for international workers, fair and consistent compensation, and effective processes to address workplace grievances. Given that our problems involve employment issues — not our science — we feel that the relationship most important for ongoing discussions prior to our election is the Postdoc-Admin one. Does the UW Admin support our Postdoc union? We want to know.

The question of Admin support comes from my past experiences at Harvard, where I performed my dissertation research and supported the graduate student union campaign of 2015–2016. At Harvard, I saw how the Admin, with its access to students’ inboxes and its position of authority, could impact election results. Unfortunately, Harvard was strongly against the unionization of grad students. A month after grad students reached majority on the card campaign, Harvard filed an amicus brief with the National Labor Relations Board against its decision to grant grad student workers at private universities the right to organize. Days before the actual election, Harvard Admin worked to undermine the message of the union organizers through multiple mass emails. Their anti-union message focused on the idea that a union would dramatically change the mentor-mentee relationship and negatively impact the graduate educational experience. However, given the lack of precedent for these effects at schools where grad students are unionized, such as at the UW, and the lack of effort by the Admin to put in place simple changes that would positively impact their education, one must seriously ask whether Harvard Admin’s grave concern over the student experience was the only motivator for their anti-union campaign.

Motivations aside, given the very negative response of Harvard Admin to the grad student union, I am wary of how the UW Admin will respond to our Postdoc union. On the one hand, the UW Admin argued vociferously against the Faculty trying to unionize over the past couple years, and, before that, opposed Interns and Residents’ and Grad Employees’ bids to unionize. On the other hand, my past year in Seattle has highlighted some fundamental cultural differences between Harvard and UW. UW is a public university and its Grad Employees are in a strong union (UAW 4121). In meetings with union organizers, Admins have said the Grad Employees’ union has made their jobs easier; in lunchtime conversations, grad students say they are happy with their representation and their workplace conditions. We hope that the UW Admin view the formation of the Postdoc union as we do: a win-win situation that is in line with the university’s stated values. And we hope that the UW Admin will act out of a place of support as we come closer to our election. At the very least, we hope that the UW Admin will take a truly neutral position and will not intervene — through coded mass emails to Postdocs, or thinly veiled anti-union guidelines for conversations sent to professors — as Postdocs weigh the facts and make an informed decision for the union.