United Automobile Workers, a union of over 6,000 postdoctoral researchers, demanded better working conditions

Postdoctoral scholars across the University of California system hand-delivered over 3,000 signatures to executive vice chancellors at seven different UC campuses on Monday to demand a fair contract and improved working conditions.

The bargaining and demands were organized by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 5810, a postdoc union representing more than 6,000 postdocs at all 10 campuses in the UC system. Postdoctoral researchers are those who have a doctoral degree, either a Ph.D. or MD, and conduct mentored research at a university. Postdocs receive salaries and benefits through federal research grants awarded to the senior researcher who guides the postdoc in research.

UAW 5810 was established in 2010, after the first contract between postdocs and the UC was negotiated and signed. The initial contract granted UC postdocs a minimum salary with periodic increases, health coverage and opportunities for career development. The union is currently bargaining for a second contract to obtain fair compensation, equal treatment for international postdocs and increased family-friendly benefits.

President of UAW 5810 and postdoc at UC Davis Anke Schennink said she was elected president of the union in May, around the same time the bargaining began. According to Schennink, one of the main demands is an increase in pay.

“There are a couple of areas where we would like to see improvements,” Schennink said. “One of them is compensation and benefits. The postdoc salaries are generally pretty low given the education level of postdocs. Most of the UC campuses are expensive areas, so it’s hard for postdocs and our families to make a living.”

UAW 5810 Santa Barbara unit chair Patrick Callahan said he joined the union since becoming a postdoc at UCSB in Nov. 2014. The average salary for postdocs is $2,700 per month, and postdocs at many UCs face housing affordability problems, according to Callahan.

“I wasn’t able to find an apartment for the first month I was in Santa Barbara,” Callahan said in an email. “The average price of a one bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara was $1,800/month in 2014. Many landlords will not rent to someone unless the rent is less than a third of their monthly salary, and that is about $900 for the average take-home postdoc pay.”

According to Schennink, another demand is to allow international postdocs to choose their visa statuses to avoid being required to immediately leave the country upon losing their job or when other complications arise.

“About two-thirds of postdoc researchers are international,” Schennink said. “A lot of postdocs are recent immigrants and are on some sort of visa. If they’re being, for example, terminated, your visa will be expired so they have to leave the country in 24 hours, or in a couple of days depending on what visa you are. So equal rights and due process are important for that.”

UCSB alumnus and hired organizer Aviva Milner-Brage said though postdocs are initially hired for a yearlong position, they typically stay for two to three years which causes difficulties when postdocs have to leave the U.S. to renew their yearlong visas.

“Because of the UC’s policies, basically they grant postdocs a visa for one year. Postdocs actually have to leave the country for a couple weeks at a time in order to renew their visa,” Milner-Brage said. “Having to leave the country puts a lot of delays in research and grant applications that they could otherwise just continue to be doing regularly.”

UAW 5810 Santa Barbara Recording Secretary Christophe Hauser said he joined the union in Jan. 2014, after becoming a postdoc at UCSB, and had a hard time finding a place to stay upon arriving in Santa Barbara with his wife.

“I am not a U.S. citizen, and it was virtually impossible to find any housing options due to the fact that we didn’t have any credit history, which most of the rental agencies (and landlords too) check before they rent you anything,” Hauser said in an email. “This made the situation extremely difficult, we had to stay in a motel for several weeks before we eventually found a room in a shared house as a sublease.”

According to Schennink, UAW 5810 is also bargaining for additional family-friendly benefits to compensate postdocs.

“Another area that is really important is family-friendly benefits,” Schennink said. “A lot of postdocs are in their late 20s, early 30s, and a lot of postdocs have young families or are thinking about starting a family.”

Milner-Brage said because postdocs have difficulty raising a family, given their short-term position and generally low salary, the union is also asking for reimbursements for child care.

“The postdoc position is not long-term,” Milner-Brage said. “Positions range from maybe one or two years to a maximum four or five years. So it’s very difficult for postdocs to get childcare when they need it … and also to afford the child care services.”

According to Hauser, a large part of the research done within a university is carried out by postdocs. Hauser said he hopes the UC will provide them with a fair contract and the compensation and benefits UAW 5810 has demanded.

“Postdocs are highly qualified employees that come from all around the world, and often don’t have family here and have to go through everything by themselves,” Hauser said in an email. “They work on challenging research projects that make the university’s reputation. The university should support postdocs and help make sure they can afford reasonable living standards.”

A version of this story appeared on page 6 in the Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015 print edition of the Daily Nexus.