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SAN FRANCISCO — There are 5,000 of them within the University of California system, with titles like project scientist or professional researcher. They’re not on the tenure track, but they power one of the world’s most prolific research institutions.
Now, organizers are in the final stages of setting up a first-of-its-kind union exclusively for academic researchers who are not faculty, postdocs, or graduate students. They expect later this spring to begin negotiating with their employer, the UC system, on what would be a landmark contract.
The effort here is attracting attention beyond the West Coast amid a nationwide wave of academic organizing. In 2018 alone, graduate workers unionized at Brown, Georgetown, and Harvard. So did postdocs at the University of Washington. And at Columbia, the university agreed to start bargaining with unionized postdocs and graduate workers.
The new union for staff scientists in the UC system is called Academic Researchers United, or ARU for short. It’s being set up as a unit within UAW Local 5810, a union that represents over 6,500 postdocs within the UC system. It’s one of more than 600 local unions of the United Auto Workers, a traditionally blue-collar union that in recent years has increasingly organized academics.
One impetus for the organizing push around ARU: Researchers who had previously been unionized postdocs felt that they had lost certain benefits upon becoming staff scientists, according to Anke Schennink, president of UAW Local 5810 and a former postdoc at UC Davis.
“At this moment, academic researchers have no job security and are facing super uncertain career paths. And UC does very little” to support or retain academic researchers, Schennink said.
ARU surveyed the UC system’s academic researchers to generate a list of initial bargaining demands. Among them: better pay and benefits; job security in cases where funding for a certain project runs out; more transparency around hiring and promotion decisions; and protections for international researchers.
Amy Weitz, a spokesperson for the UC’s Office of the President, said the university system “believes strongly in employees’ right to decide for themselves whether being in a union would be beneficial to them.” She noted that the UC system last week sent its academic researchers a letter updating them on the process.
This past fall, a majority of academic researchers employed across the UC’s different campuses voted in favor of forming the new unit. Then, last month, ARU reached an agreement with the UC about precisely who could join it. ARU expects to be formally certified by a state agency within days. That step would set the stage for the start of a bargaining process, which the UC says it anticipates will begin in mid-May.
While other local unions across the country have a membership base that includes staff scientists among other academics, ARU believes it’s the first unit of its kind exclusively for staff scientists. That’s a big part of why postdocs and academic researchers around the country are contacting ARU, many of them asking for ideas or advice about how to do similar organizing at their own institutions, Schennink said.
Theo Tarver is one of the organizers with ARU. He’s spent the past three years working at UC San Francisco, as an academic researcher in a lab that studies the mechanisms of response and resistance to different targeted cancer therapies.
Tarver said he got involved with ARU in part because of his own concerns about his own and his colleagues’ salary while living in San Francisco, which has one of the highest costs of living in the country.
“I definitely feel that crunch in my day-to-day life,” Tarver said. “And it’s not just me — it’s countless other accounts of employees who are attempting to balance our salaries with the cost of living in California.”