As a graduate student in history and computing, Nicola Lercari had spent years perfecting a process that allowed him to create true-to-life digital visualizations of ancient towns and archaeology, creating a window into the past. His work bridging archeology and virtual reality was sought after by museums and other cultural institutions.
Already halfway through his doctoral studies, Lercari’s goal was to build his career and to hopefully secure a faculty position one day, so he committed to developing innovative research projects as a visiting scholar at the University of California’s newest campus, UC Merced. His fellowship as a graduate student paid about $30,000 a year before taxes, with no medical benefits. Then he had to find a place to live. He eventually rented a room in a house with several others and completed his research project on visualization and public history.
Lercari excelled and was soon asked to give lectures. He began teaching his own course. And even though he enjoyed UC Merced and met Ana, the woman he would soon marry, the low pay and the lack of benefits grated on him. That changed when, in 2011, he took a position as a postdoctoral researcher.
Unbeknownst to Lercari, a group of postdoctoral researchers — “postdocs” — across all 10 UC campuses had spent the last several years working to organize a union. Postdocs have already earned a doctorate and perform cutting-edge research on everything from cancer treatments to new models of the universe. Their work has helped the university establish itself as one of the world’s premier research universities, but despite their extremely high education and skill level, in 2010, postdocs were paid as little as $18,000 a year by the university.
Forming a union was motivated by our desire to secure pay levels that would allow us to care for our families and focus on our work, and also by economic justice: The research done by postdocs helps to yield grants and patents that, every year, produce millions for the university and make up the backbone of discovery and innovation in California. We knew that postdocs deserved better working conditions, better pay, health-care benefits and job security in return for our labor and expertise.
We unionized and ratified our first employment contract with the university in 2010. That contract improved Lercari’s pay and gave him access to an affordable health-care plan, among many other rights and protections. The year after, because of the contract, Lercari and all postdocs at UC campuses across the state received their first guaranteed pay raise. Lercari became active in the union, serving on a subcommittee that advocated immigration reform to help international postdocs. He proposed to his girlfriend.
After leaving UC Merced, Lercari worked for a couple of years at Duke University in North Carolina and married Ana. While Lercari enjoyed his colleagues and continued his research, conditions for postdocs were very different. Unlike at the University of California, postdocs at Duke are not unionized. For Lercari, this meant that although the work was similar, there was no set salary scale and no clear way to advance from year to year, and that a portion of his salary had to be spent purchasing health coverage for him and his spouse. It’s easy to see how this could affect research: Creating digital recreations of ancient sites is hard enough without having to worry about your benefits.
As the president of UAW Local 5810, the postdoc union, I’m proud of the transformative progress our first contract made for Lercari and for thousands of postdocs who faced similar circumstances. But it’s important to recognize that as we bargain a new contract this year, postdocs need a number of improvements so that we can continue to make contributions that move society forward and so that the university can continue to be a worldwide leader in research.
These include fair salaries that reflect the valuable contributions that postdocs make to the university’s research mission. Even after our contract, starting postdocs earn less than a living wage for a family residing near nine of the 10 UC campuses. To retain women in STEM and other fields, UC must improve family-friendly benefits, such as affordable access to UC childcare facilities and parental leave time. As housing costs soar in many California cities, access to affordable housing and transportation must be improved. And finally, it means guaranteeing that international postdocs such as Lercari are treated with respect and have all the same rights as their colleagues.
After years of hard work, Lercari achieved his goal of attaining a faculty position and recently returned to UC Merced, where he is now an assistant professor of world heritage.
Welcoming brilliant, hardworking people from around the world, such as Lercari, and giving them the support to do their work makes the university stronger and enhances research and innovation in California. We look forward to working with UC management toward a contract that improves life for postdocs and everyone who benefits from our research.
Anke Schennink is a former postdoctoral scholar in the UC Davis department of animal science and the president of UAW Local 5810.
A previous version of this article stated that the author is a postdoctoral scholar. In fact, she is a former postdoctoral scholar.