UConn postdocs ink contract

Agreement includes a more than 25% increase in minimum salaries

Mar 23, 2004
Alison McCook(abmccook@yahoo.com)

Postdocs at the University of Connecticut Health Center voted 80 to 5 to ratify a union agreement last week, a step organizers are calling the first of its kind.

“This is something historical,” and a move that may encourage other postdocs to organize as well, Munirathinam Subramani, a postdoctoral fellow in the UConn Neuroscience Department and one of the principal organizers, told The Scientist.

The agreement includes a 26.7% spike in the minimum salary, from $27,000 to $34,200—equivalent to the minimum starting salary for postdoctoral fellows set by the National Institutes of Health. After 1 year, UConn postdocs making the new minimum will experience another 5.3% increase in wages, from $34,200 to $36,000. Postdocs who make more than the new minimum will receive 3% more wages this year and an additional 3.25% next year.

The agreement ensures that postdocs will receive 12 paid sick days and 30 additional vacation days, also paid. Approximately 60% of UConn postdocs currently make less than the new minimum salary, making this a “wonderful package,” said Subramani.

The change will cost the university about $1 million in additional salaries over the next 2 years.

The agreement comes only months after postdocs first voted, by a slim margin, to join a union representing 1900 other UConn Health Center workers. Prior to joining the union, organizers said they had spent years negotiating with the university for acceptable standards for working conditions, including salaries, benefits, and vacation.

UConn spokesperson Jim Walter told The Scientist that the university has already accepted the agreement, which will now pass to the state legislature, where it is likely to be approved.

Walter added that the entire process took place relatively quickly because both sides wanted to find an accord. “We're very glad that we were able to reach an agreement,” he said.

One concern raised during the negotiations was that the wage increases might prevent principal investigators (PIs) from funding new positions, Walter said. Although this remains a possibility, he added that the university also hopes the agreement—cushy by many postdoc researchers' standards—will help attract the “best and brightest” minds of the postdoc community.

Another long-standing concern over unionization is that postdocs' new status as unionized workers may affect their relationship with their PIs, who often act as mentors in the early stages of postdocs' careers. “Those types of things cannot be negotiated in a contract,” said Carol Manahan of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a cofounder of the National Postdoctoral Association, an organization that works with institutions to assist postdocs in their careers.

She added that UConn postdocs' recent success has not encouraged her to consider unionization at her university, where negotiating has been sufficient to solve postdoc problems, and she and her colleagues have not had to resort to more dramatic tactics.

However, Manahan told The Scientist that the UConn agreement demonstrates that unionization is a “viable option” for postdocs who are having less success negotiating for better working conditions and added that she hopes it also warns universities about the importance of pleasing their postdocs. “I think this situation will be watched very carefully by many institutions across the country,” Manahan said.

The situation has been watched by students at nearby universities as well. “My sense is that postdocs around the country have been waiting for this,” said Maris Zivarts, a graduate student in biology at Yale, and a member of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which seeks to be recognized as a union.