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UC researchers ratify their first union contract

August 12, 2010 | 12:11 pm

While tenured faculty usually get the credit and big salaries for scientific discoveries at the University of California, legwork for their breakthroughs is often performed by more anonymous postdoctoral researchers who earn less than $40,000 a year.

On Thursday, those 6,500 postdoc researchers stepped into the national spotlight with the announcement that they had ratified by an overwhelming margin their first union contract with the UC system. The action comes after an arduous organizing and negotiating effort that began four years ago. The pay raises are not huge, but experts say the contract will significantly change the research workplace environment at the 10 UC campuses and potentially across much of American academia.

"This will have a tremendous impact. Success breeds success and emulation. I think there is a good chance this will go national with the success," said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is located at Hunter College in New York. Beyond salary terms, the agreement is notable for establishing "professional dignity" at a time when the weakened finances at UC and other universities makes many employees feel vulnerable, he added.

The contract between UC and a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers is the first free-standing one of its kind in the country and affects by far the most researchers, according to UC and union officials. Researchers at a couple of other U.S. universities previously won union contracts, but in connection with other groups of campus employees, they say.

Among other things, the UC compact will give 3% pay increases for most postdocs and 1.5% for the most highly paid ones. In exchange, the union agreed not to strike for five years.

The contract also requires all new postdocs to be hired at the pay levels recommended by the National Institutes of Health, which funds much UC research, and for other employees to gradually approach NIH levels over five years. For this year, the NIH scale ranges from $37,740 for new researchers to about $48,000 after five years experience. UC reports that its current starting salary for new hires was just $340 below the NIH standard but concedes that some previous employees were paid significantly less.

The contract also gives the union a stronger say in safety and health issues in the labs, where dangerous chemicals and biological samples may be used.

-- Larry Gordon