Paying back Berkeley postdoctoral scholars

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Yi Zhong/Staff

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Last week, you may have noticed the thousands of patient care workers represented by AFSCME 3299 in green t-shirts, striking at campuses and hospitals across the UC system. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only employees who have been mistreated and short-changed by UC management. Nor are they the only ones fighting back.

Our union represents about 6,000 postdoctoral scholars at the university. Postdocs are highly trained specialists in their fields  who arrive at the university with a doctorate in hand, ready to work very long hours in UC labs for pay that is much less than what those with similar qualifications are paid in the private sector — the average UC postdoc’s pay in 2012 was about $46,000.

Last year, we became aware that the university was telling one group of postdocs — the vast majority of whom are recent immigrants on guest worker visas — that they must pay the university’s share of their health care plan or purchase coverage independently on the open market. This is in direct violation of the contract that our union and the university negotiated, agreed to and signed.

UC’s decision took hundreds — and in some cases, thousands— of dollars out of the pockets of these researchers each month and forced many to forgo health coverage altogether. Some were not able to cover their children, and several postdocs with pregnant spouses were told that they had to pay more than $700 a month for the same plan that other postdocs were paying less than $40 per month for.

When these facts came to light, we organized — we made our case in the press, circulated a petition and filed grievances — and that agitation partially paid off. While refusing to admit to any wrongdoing, the university agreed to hold a special enrollment session this week to allow those who were unfairly denied or given bad information to enroll themselves and their dependents in the plan at affordable rates.

But what the university refuses to do — and what we will not stop fighting for — is make whole the workers who were forced to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars out of pocket because of the university’s contract violations.

Thankfully, we’re not alone in this fight. After examining the facts, both Sen. Ed Hernandez, Chairman of the California State Senate Committee on Health, and Assemblymember Richard Pan, Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Health, wrote letters to UC President Mark Yudof asking the UC to re-evaluate its position and consider mitigation for those who were forced to pay the university’s share or denied coverage. They added: “… every month that goes on without fair resolution, postdoctoral scholars are exposed to additional financial hardship and medical risks.” Copies of the letters can be viewed at uaw5810.org/letters-to-uc/.

It’s time for the university to step up, accept responsibility for its actions and pay back what was unfairly taken from the pockets of these mostly immigrant workers. For many in California and across the world, the university is a symbol of progress and opportunity — but decisions like this one call into question management’s commitment to those ideals. What will it take to convince UC management to play by the rules, honor contracts and treat workers fairly?

Our union is relatively new — we organized just under three years ago. Without the legal power of our contract and the collective support of our members, it is highly unlikely that there would have been any consequences for the university’s decision to treat this specific group unfairly. We stand with students, patient-care workers, service workers and all at the University of California who have to fight at every turn for a quality education, decent pay, equal benefits and fair treatment.

Neal Sweeney is the president of UAW Local 5810.

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