Postdocs Deserve Good-Faith Contract

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Whereas summer usually brings a relative quiet to campus, there is an important struggle now percolating beneath the surface with important implications for the future of the University of California system, namely the ongoing negotiations between UC administrators and its more than 6,500 Postdoctoral Scholars ("postdocs") seeking a fair first contract. So far, these negotiations provide one more unfortunate example ongoing mismanagement of our great university-unchecked administrative growth, draconian hikes in student fees and now bad-faith bargaining charges in their negotiations with postdocs. UC postdocs formed their union in November 2008 in order to negotiate for long-overdue improvements in salaries, benefits and working conditions. However, the university has dragged out negotiations for more than 17 months, refusing to agree to a fair first contract for these important researchers who are critical to the university's reputation as the world leader in scientific innovation.

Postdocs are researchers with doctoral degrees who perform and lead much of the day-to-day functions of the research mission of the university and universities across the nation. From performing experiments to mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, to supervising other researchers, to writing grants, and authoring the ground-breaking papers that lead to new discoveries, postdocs are at the forefront of making research happen at the university. In laboratories across the state, UC faculty rely heavily on the hard work, creativity, and independent initiative of postdocs to improve research. Whereas our role as faculty is to mentor postdocs as they transition from completing a PhD into professional research careers, we also benefit tremendously from their work. I have mentored numerous postdocs over the years and know well the value of these highly-trained researchers.

Not only do postdocs play a major role in advancing the university's reputation as the world's leading research institution, their work helps bring roughly $5 billion in research contracts and grants to the university each year. In fact, the university's overall annual research revenue has more than doubled in a little over a decade, growing from $2.2 billion in 1997 to $4.7 billion in 2009, due in no small part to the important work and ingenuity of postdocs. If the university wishes to maintain its role as a world leader in scientific and technological innovation, we must reward the researchers who make that happen so that we continue to attract the best and brightest. The improvements postdocs have proposed, moreover, are both justified and possible.

Postdocs are paid from the university's growing research grant revenues, most of which comes from the federal government. Since this money may not be used for other purposes such as supplementing the university's declining state general fund revenues, the state budget crisis has no effect on the university's ability to improve postdoc compensation. The university's refusal to reach a fair agreement is clearly not based on financial inability; it is instead based on misplaced priorities. It is simply unacceptable to have highly compensated UC executives and negotiators refusing to agree to fair salary improvements for postdocs who earn a minimum salary of $37,400 while attempting to cure cancer and other major diseases, developing new sources of renewable energy, and working on other innovative projects of major social import.

UC stalling has generated a growing chorus of voices calling on them to finish negotiations. In addition to a majority of UC postdocs, student leaders, faculty, and key Congressional leaders have called on our university to reach a fair agreement. Importantly, Representative George Miller's House Education and Labor Committee recently held a field hearing in Berkeley, with hundreds of postdocs and concerned community members in attendance (Daily Cal, 3 May 2010) and curious to understand why the university had failed to reach agreement after 15 months of negotiations. Afterwards, Miller wrote the university President Yudof saying he was "thoroughly disappointed" in the university's. Dissatisfied with the university's continued excuses for not reaching agreement, Miller has now requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) perform an audit of the university's finances.

Clearly, these negotiations have gone on far too long. The university needs to listen to these growing voices and settle the contract so that we can all go back to focusing on the research that has historically made the university a world-renowned academic institution.

Robert Dudley is a professor at UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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