Nontenure-track researchers ratify first contract with the University of California | Science

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Union members rally on the University of California, Berkeley, campus during contract negotiations in July

Academic Researchers United/UAW 5810

For years, Luke Bonser fretted about his lack of job security. Originally from the United Kingdom, the asthma researcher moved to the United States on a work visa in 2012 to do a postdoc at the University of California (UC), San Francisco. After 5 years in that position, he stayed on as an associate professional researcher, a nontenure-track position with relatively low pay, few benefits, and virtually no guarantee that his job would continue to exist from one day to the next. With a wife and baby to support, the uncertainty has been stressful.

Bonser is now breathing a little easier after a labor union representing him and other nontenure-track academics ratified its first contract with the UC system last week. The first-of-its-kind contract for nontenure-track staff scientists will boost salaries, guarantee benefits, expand sick leave, and provide more job stability for nearly 5000 employees at 10 campuses across the statewide system.

“We’re overall very happy with it,” says Christina Priest, a project scientist at UC Los Angeles, who served on the union’s bargaining committee. “The UC representatives took us seriously. They listened to us. We didn’t get everything we wanted, and there were some things they didn’t want to give us that we now have. That’s the nature of the process.”

Members of the union—Academic Researchers United (ARU)—ratified the 3-year deal in a 2450-to-53 vote on 8 November. The contract guarantees:

  • Salary increases of up to 24% over the duration of the contract
  • Eligibility to participate in the same benefits and retirement programs as other academic employees
  • Expanded and more flexible sick leave and paid time off
  • Access to the same parking and transit programs as other academic employees
  • Reimbursement for work-related travel expenses
  • Mandatory minimum 1-year appointments and scheduled merit reviews
  • Protections against being fired or disciplined arbitrarily
  • The right to continue their work in another lab if they formally accuse someone in their primary lab of discrimination or sexual harassment

Additionally, the UC system and ARU will form a joint committee to explore the possibility of creating a bridge funding program to support the salaries of nontenured principal investigators in between rounds of grant funding.

The response from tenured faculty has been “kind of a mixed bag,” says Priest. “Some of the faculty I talked to expressed concern that our salary increases were going to interfere with the ability of labs to pay people—that maybe we were asking for too much,” she says. “Other faculty members were very supportive.”

Ultimately, the deal should benefit both workers and the university system, says William Herbert, the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York City. “It provides workers a degree of security. It lets them plan for the future,” he says. “And employers know what they’ve committed to … with clear, enforceable rules.”

The ARU formed in 2018, spurred by the successes of the UC system’s postdoc union. That union negotiated a labor contract for roughly 6500 postdocs in 2010, winning pay raises, improved benefits, and workplace safety guarantees.

In 2018, Priest and dozens of other labor-minded scientists from around the UC system surveyed academic researchers about changes they would like to see in their workplaces and employment policies. Next, they formalized the responses into a list of contract requests. UC formally recognized the union in March of this year, and the bargaining committee began meeting with UC officials immediately afterward.

Squaring off with university administrators over budgets and labor law was a new experience for many of the scientists. “I do research—I’m a lab person—so it was different from anything I’d ever done before,” Priest says. But “overall, it was a pretty positive experience.”

The staff scientists that ARU represents hold positions that UC defines as “academic researchers,” with titles such as “professional researcher,” “specialist,” or “project scientist.” They are not on the tenure track, and—until now—their pay and benefits varied dramatically from university to university. Many are, like Bonser, international workers on a work visa. 

“For me … the most important thing about the new contract was more job security,” says Bonser. But he wishes the contract included guaranteed time off for new parents. As of now, researchers can take parental leave, but it’s deducted from accrued sick leave and vacation days.

“It’s a good step forward, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” Bonser says of the contract.

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