They've been called "the invisible scientists,"  and while that's probably hyperbole, postdoctoral researchers are, on many university campuses, neither fish nor fowl -- not yet professors, and yet no longer students, either. Their numbers have risen steadily in recent years with the increase in biomedical and other research spending, to an estimated 50,000 to 60,000, but the length of time that many postdocs spend in this in-between stage has been growing, too. Also on the rise, among some of them, is frustration at low pay, insufficient benefits and the reality that fewer of them may find a full-time faculty or research job at the end of their stint.
Their rising numbers and occasional dissatisfaction with their working conditions would seem to make postdocs prime candidates for unionization -- or at least for the attention of union organizers. In 2004, postdoctoral fellows at the University of Connecticut Health Center agreed to unionize through an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. And for much of the past year, a fledgling branch of the United Auto Workers -- calling itself PRO/UAW  (for Postdoctoral Researchers Organize) -- has sought to become the collective bargaining agent for the roughly 5,800 postdocs in the University of California system, who represent in the neighborhood of 10 percent of all postdocs in the United States.
Last week, though, the union withdrew a petition it had filed in July with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking to represent UC postdocs, saying it had fallen short of the requisite number of signatures. Many of those involved in the California campaign -- including some who fought the organizing effort -- say they objected less to the idea of unionization than they did to the UAW's tactics, some of which they say were misleading.
But postdocs at UC and some experts on postdoctoral scholars say the California effort underscores both the reasons why postdocs are an appealing target for unions seeking to expand their membership rolls and the special challenges they pose for organizers.
"Unions want to organize as many academic workers as they can," particularly at a time when many of their more traditional pools of potential members are shrinking, said Richard J. Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. "The full-time faculty is as much organized as it's going to be. The unions are making inroads with the contingent faculty, and eventually they're going to get the graduate employees. The postdocs are the other cohort that bears all the earmarks. But organizing academic workers is very difficult in general, and this cohort, specifically, will be very, very difficult."
The reasons why the climb is uphill are many. First, postdocs are found largely in the hard sciences, and across the academic labor movement, scientists have historically been less prone to unionization than have their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences. That's partially related to reason No. 2, which is that most postdocs are hired by and therefore heavily dependent on the researchers on whose grant projects they are working -- and therefore often disinclined to potentially anger them by lining up with a collective bargining effort that might aggressively seek to pit them against their bosses.
"Postdocs are dependent on that [principal investigator's] recommendation, his or her support," said Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association,  which was formed three years ago as a professional organization to represent the interests of postdocs and takes a neutral position on whether postdocs should unionize. "A lot of postdocs would be hesitant to do something that might jeopardize that relationship."
Organizing postdocs may also prove a challenge because many postdocs don't technically work for their institutions -- some are on fellowships (from government agencies, foundations or companies) that specifically prohibit them from being treated as employees, Reed said. That fact can make defining who is in (and not in) the bargaining unit for a prospective union a major challenge.
And because postdoctoral researchers usually work with individual researchers in laboratories, they are often isolated, which make them harder for union organizers to reach than, say, a bunch of graduate teaching assistants in composition who see each other constantly in the halls of the university English department and enroll in the same graduate seminars.
Still, those impediments did not stop the United Auto Workers from taking aim at the University of California's postdocs this spring. Union officials, who could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts, sought to win the UC postdocs by describing the many benefits that postdocs at the Connecticut health center won after they unionized and promising better treatment for California's own postdocs. "Without a contract, UC has the unilateral ability to decide and change our wages, benefits, and working conditions," the PRO/UAW group said on its Web site. "They can seek our input when they wish, but input lacks the equal footing and legal rights provided by collective bargaining.... By unionizing, postdocs expand our current rights, negotiate on an equal footing with UC, and can deliver binding contracts."
For months during the late spring and summer, UAW organizers visited labs at the 10 UC campuses to try to win over postdocs one by one. In July, the union announced: "Great news! A strong majority of UC Postdocs statewide have signed up for the Union. The petition has been filed with the state labor board."
A few weeks later, however, the University of California, which had, in compliance with state policy, maintained official objectivity on the unionization drive, filed an objection with the Public Employment Relations Board on behalf of postdocs who complained that they had been misled by union representatives. A Web site dedicated to opposing the union drive  offered a page of testimonials  from postdocs, many of whom complained that they had signed cards authorizing the union to represent them, when they were under the impression that they were simply asking the union for more information. Critics urged postdocs who felt they had signed authorization cards mistakenly to write the university and the state labor board seeking to revoke the cards they had signed.
Last week, the union withdrew its petition. A notice on the PRO/UAW Web site said union officials had learned that "500-600 of the cards we submitted to PERB were from people who identified as Postdocs at the time they signed, but now are not Postdocs.... As a result, we are approximately 100 cards short of majority." The spin from the anti-union Web site was decidedly different: "The latest news is that the PRO/UAW fell far short of the authorization cards they needed, and it was clear to PERB that UC postdocs did not want to be unionized by the PRO/UAW."
Gregory Potter, a fifth-year postdoc in the psychiatry department at the University of California at San Francisco and president of the campus's Postdoctoral Scholars Association, which maintained a neutral stance during the election, said that much of the opposition to the UAW emerged not because postdocs are necessarily opposed to the idea of unionization but because of perceptions that the union wasn't forthright.
While Potter says that UC involves advocacy groups like his in university decision making and provides fairly strong benefits -- Reed of the National Postdoctoral Association said her organization "touts UC as having some of the best policies for postdocs in the United States" -- he acknowledges that "a lot of postdocs would probably favor a union, because there are a lot of issues that postdocs face that could be dealt with through an organization like that.... We're always trying to achieve better salary grades, and while our benefits packages are relatively good, on issues like parking and child care, it would be helpful to have a union behind us."
Boris of Hunter's collective bargaining center predicts that despite the UAW's failed effort thus far, attempts by that union and others to organize postdocs at California and elsewhere will continue. Decades of history of unionizing faculty members and other academic workers shows, he said, that "there is a learning process by both organizers and workers themselves" whenever a new crop of unions and employees deal with each other. "Conversations will continue."