Postdocs deserve fair pay

Amanda Burke/Staff
Amanda Burke/file

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It’s not news that the cost of living in Berkeley and the Bay Area has skyrocketed recently, forcing students, artists and thousands of other workers to either scrape by or live somewhere else. Recognizing the danger of this trend, many local governments and organizations are doing what they can to mitigate the impact on working people. Unfortunately, UC Berkeley is not one of them.

As the president of the union representing postdoctoral scholars at the university, our members are feeling the effects of this economic pressure. We came to the university to pursue the work we’re passionate about: advancing cancer treatments, finding new clean energy sources, discovering new planets and much more. Our work has contributed to the university’s sterling reputation as a research university, and helps yield an average of three new patents every day. Those successes are the result of long hours, hard work, creativity and many, many sacrifices along the way.

That’s why the university’s recent decision to disregard our contract and the federal government’s guidelines granting postdoctoral scholars a modest raise is so unacceptable. Our contract states that we are to be paid at least the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Service Award scale, which sets the levels for federal research pay across the country. Congress instituted a small salary increase to the scale this year, which, according to our contract, should be implemented by June 1 at the latest.

So imagine our surprise when the university told us in May that they were not going to implement the pay raises as they were contractually obligated to do. Even though the university reaps billions in revenue every year thanks to the research being conducted — often largely by postdoctoral researchers — they were balking at a modest increase.

To add insult to injury, administrators at UC Berkeley initially told our members that they would get a raise — and indeed, some postdoctoral scholars actually saw higher paychecks for a month — before sending out form letters that stated the raise was “an error.”

And then, UC Berkeley actually asked them to pay the raises back. We’re talking about $200 or less. After working long hours in the lab on research that benefits the university and society in general, being asked to pay back a small raise can only be seen as outrageous.

This is doubly unfair because the university agreed to the raise in our contract and because we deserve fair compensation to match the rising living costs. Moreover, the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Service Award scale represents the floor, not the ceiling, of postdoctoral pay. That the university would object to paying the bare minimum speaks volumes about its respect for hard working scientists whose achievements and grants add to the university’s coffers each year.

Many UC postdoctoral researchers are recent immigrants to this country, and most of us have families. The university’s decision to renege on our raises sends a clear message that they don’t respect our work or the contributions we make. And it tells us that those at the top of the management structure don’t understand how difficult it is for working people to make ends meet in today’s economy.

Many of us chose to come to the university not just for its academic reputation, but also for its long tradition of social justice. How disappointing to know that management would knowingly deprive us of a small raise. How surprising when one of the campuses, UC Berkeley, would attempt to reverse the raises to collect almost insignificant sums to a multibillion-dollar university. Is this the same UC Berkeley that is often looked to as a national model for progressive values?

We have filed a grievance with the UC Office of the President and are currently waiting for its response. Our hope is that they realize that denying us our raises and attempting to claw back the wages of our members was a big mistake that should be rectified immediately.

Neal Sweeney is the President of UAW Local 5810.

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