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Postdoctoral researchers ready to fight

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SEPTEMBER 29, 2015

We have doctorate degrees and years of experience in a wide range of academic disciplines, mostly in the sciences and engineering. We are essential to the modern university: We carry out fundamental research, mentor students and write grants to fund our labs. We work extremely long hours. No, we’re not professors. We are UC postdoctorals, or postdocs, and research at UC Berkeley would grind to a halt without us.

There are roughly 6,000 of us across all UC campuses. We organized in 2009 and formed UAW 5810, the first union for postdocs in the country and won our first contract in 2010. We have been bargaining for our second contract for months, and our first expires this week. Our proposals have reflected our value to the University of California and our expertise, but they have been met by counter-proposals that are sometimes worse than our expiring contract. The university is trying to make it easy to fire postdocs without cause, despite an existing process for both dismissal of underperforming postdocs and necessary layoffs. The university is requesting a salary cap that could potentially fall below the National Institute of Health pay scale set by the federal government. Under the current NIH scale, our starting gross salary is almost less than the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. The university even wrote a memo to the Department of Labor specifically asking that we be exempted from President Barack Obama’s new overtime regulations. Postdocs are unwilling to accept a contract that is worse than our current one or sign away our federal labor rights.

The response from the university to workers asking for better compensation is as predictable as it is disingenuous: “We don’t have any money.” As in many universities, administrative bloat has soared in recent years. The UC system now has more senior-level administrators than faculty members. Currently, 36 percent of all research money awarded by the funding agency to a project is captured by the university for indirect costs. Of that, almost half is used for administrative costs. The university has been citing hardships of the professors running labs during our bargaining process. When the university does this, it obscures the burden that the administrative layer already places on our funding availability. Why is the university crying poor when it is funneling increasing amounts of tax dollars away from science to pay for excessive layers of management?

The UC system — and UC Berkeley in particular — attempts to project an image of being a “progressive” institution. In both the popular imagination and the branded messaging of the university, it is a shining beacon of justice and inclusion. Time and time again, the university contradicts these values in how it treats its workers. Not only do the university’s labor practices reflect a disregard for workers, but those disproportionately affected are the same groups the university aims to boost in the name of diversity.

It is hypocritical to advocate more women in science, for example, while not providing parental leave or childcare for postdocs.

Our situation is not unique. We are experiencing a nationwide assault on labor rights in a time that the wages of average workers remain stagnant in the face of rising costs of living, in spite of steadily increasing worker productivity. Public universities are not exempt from these trends, as the experience of workers at UC Berkeley can attest. The corporatization of the university is harmful not only to workers but to the very missions of research and education the institution is meant to carry out.

The university seems to think that we’ll roll over and accept whatever crumbs it deigns to give us. But when I talk to other postdocs, they’re not complacent. They’re angry. We all know that we aren’t being treated like the essential drivers of cutting-edge research that we are. We know we could get great jobs in industry, but we stay because we love science and want to solve the greatest challenges faced by humanity. We are demanding a decent standard of living for ourselves and our families, and we can see that the university’s failure to provide this is damaging to its research mission. We are ready to fight — not only for ourselves but for the future of academic research.

Lydia Majure is a postdoc at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and one of the head stewards for UC Berkeley in UAW 5810. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

SEPTEMBER 29, 2015