UC academic researchers need better working conditions

Researchers pointing towards ARU symbol
Alexander Hong/Staff

Academic Researchers, or ARs, are the backbone of the UC system’s world-renowned research mission. Academic researchers conduct experiments, write grants, mentor colleagues and run research labs. Our cutting-edge work in areas such as biotechnology, medicine, agriculture and green energy leads to almost $5 billion in grant revenue each year.

In 2018, a supermajority of ARs came together to form a union, Academic Researchers United/United Auto Workers, or UAW, Local 5810. ARs began organizing a union to have more avenues for professional advancement, job security, higher pay, discrimination protections and much more. The union’s goal is to improve working conditions for ARs and thereby also improve research programs at the UC.

Unfortunately, the UC does not recognize Academic Researchers United, saying it doubts “the appropriateness of the proposed unit.” Despite supermajority support and a clear and unambiguous ruling by the state Public Employment Relations Board that ARs are part of an appropriate unit, the UC is delaying the start of bargaining.

The need for improvements is dire. Every day, ARs consider leaving the UC or academia altogether. The dropout rate for aspiring scientists has risen sharply in the last 50 years; now, more than half of academic researchers leave academia after five years. For example, after graduating from UC Merced, Jocelyne started working as a junior specialist at UCSF, researching stem cells and how tissue is being renewed. Despite working at a world-class research institution, her pay is so low that after working in the lab all day, she heads to a second job in retail to make ends meet.

And there are many ARs who have struggled with the same poor conditions. But they can’t continue this grind forever; it takes a toll on their health both mentally and physically and becomes an impediment to their practice of science. Every day, low pay, combined with job insecurity, poor protections from harassment and uncertain futures, causes ARs like Jocelyne to question their prospects for career in sciences.

Even for ARs with established careers, unclear avenues for career advancement and progression can leave ARs feeling like “second-class citizens” at the UC. Fred has been a project scientist studying advanced energy-efficient buildings at UC Berkeley for more than thirty years, research responsible for bringing in millions of dollars in grants. But when he first arrived at UC Berkeley, with five years of experience as a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he was immediately hit with the reality of a lack of opportunities for career advancement and recognition. In an ongoing survey of thousands of ARs, 71 percent of researchers have reported that they want to bargain a contract that improves the UC’s policies for promotion, appointment and job security policies, with many reporting that the full extent of their work goes unrecognized.

And Academic Researchers United is not alone in recognizing that researcher working conditions need major changes. A long series of reports by national experts have called for systemic improvements in training and research support. Most recently, the National Academy of Sciences — the nation’s highest scientific advisory body — proposed higher pay, a transparent and fair promotion process, better professional development and more funding for AR-type positions. By forming a union, ARs will have the power to make these recommendations a reality.

Nationwide, tens of thousands of academic employees, including postdocs, research scientists, and teaching and research assistants, are forming unions to create change at their institutions. ARs will be joining UC postdocs in UAW Local 5810, which has fought for and won improvements including increased pay, guaranteed fully paid parental leave, expanded access to high-quality benefits and more protections for international workers. Beyond the UC, forming Academic Researchers United will enable ARs to advocate for increased research funding, fair immigration policies in the United States and truly inclusive and equitable academic institutions.

ARs provide the university and society with valuable research and should be better supported. Uncertainty about our careers and a lack of basic respect at work impacts the quality of our research. Multiple studies have shown that researchers are more productive when they are paid fairly, have job security and are supported in their careers. When researchers feel secure and certain about the future, they can focus more on research and be more successful.

ARs are ready to address these issues at the bargaining table. Together, ARs and the UC can set a precedent for universities nationwide by improving careers for researchers. Academic Researchers United is calling on the UC to stop delaying so we can get to work. By having a strong contract, we will ensure that the future of academic research includes respect and fair treatment for the people who make it possible.

Jocelyne Fadiga is a junior specialist at UCSF, and Fred Bauman is a project scientist at UC Berkeley. Both Fred and Jocelyne are leaders in Academic Researchers United.