Postdoc Unionizing: what a strike would do
Someone wrote in to say she didn't want to have to go on strike if the UAW negotiations with UC should break down.
I have to agree that if it were me, I already resent any interruption to my experiments, and I could see why it would suck.
It would likely be, at best, very inconvenient, and wouldn't help current postdocs very much.
However. Look at what the UAW did for auto workers. Did you know that the average auto worker pay is $28 an hour? That's about $60,000/year plus benefits, quite a bit more than a first-year postdoc makes WITH A PhD (NIH minimum is $37,000).
Think about that for a minute.
Why is a science PhD given so little value in the US? It's equivalent to 5-6 (or more) years of on-the-job training. Engineers without a PhD but with equivalent years of work experience straight out of college make ~$80,000/year (or more).
Why? You can say it's about products and sales and limiting the number of engineers creates demand, etc.
But since science departments refuse to limit numbers of degrees awarded, here we are with too many PhDs and nowhere to put them. Or, lots of people qualified to do all the wrong kinds of things.
Okay, you say, so what, who cares how we got here. It's not about the money.
What about job security? That's what really makes me angry. You can go all the way down the pipeline and end up.... in the sewer.
The real problem with science is that it's a pyramid scheme. You buy in, but there's no guarantee of any payoff or moving up.
So you end up with a pile of stuff you can't sell, and no money. Goody.
Doesn't that piss you off? If it doesn't now, it will in a few years when you're looking at what I'm looking at: the realization that I might have wasted the best years of my life putting up with something that I KNEW was fucked up because I really believed it would eventually pay off if I just tried hard enough.
And I did, I really tried. But guess what? That's not enough.
So let's imagine for a minute what would happen if all the postdocs in California went on strike next week.
In this imaginary scenario, it would be impossible to hire any postdoc from anywhere, so you couldn't bring in foreign postdocs willing to work for less money or off the books (for example).
In the current climate, it seems to me that this would be a fatal blow for science in California. Accordingly, UC would be forced to negotiate. However, UC doesn't want to spend any money on postdocs. So it's hard to see how this would turn out, especially since CA is already in debt and Schwarzenegger has been trying to cut education funding.
However, if it somehow went on long enough, here's what would happen.
Some PIs would turn to grad students and technicians to pick up the slack.
And some PIs would be, eventually, screwed. With no preliminary data for their grants, and no papers coming out, they might lose funding. But that would take a couple of years to have much of an effect.
They would try to ask NIH for a bailout. Get it? Bailout! HAHAHHAHA.
Meanwhile, in the current climate, most postdocs (especially those with visas) would be begging someone to hire them on as anything just to pay the bills (and stay in the country). Even if they had to become technicians. If only UC would let them do that (there are some rules against hiring PhDs into certain staff positions, but there are loopholes).
Granted, the technician title would actually be a better deal for the average postdoc, since the salary is equivalent (or better) but the benefits are MUCH better. Technicians also have automatic union membership, so once you outlast the 6-month probationary period, you're officially a staff member. AND you get retirement, among other things.
But you probably would lose some of the privileges of publishing, and it's hard to see how universities could afford to hire faculty if they're going to have to pay postdocs more reasonable salaries.
Now let's scale up this little thought experiment. What if, just for the purposes of discussion, we imagined that ALL the postdocs in the US went on strike. Indefinitely.
First, if you've ever had an NIH fellowship, you could get in trouble for this. They have a payback clause, kind of like the military. You have to contribute to science somehow in order to fulfill this payback clause. I've never heard of it being enforced, mind you, but a nationwide strike might precipitate such a backlash.
However, assuming you don't have this particular complication (and only something like 1/10th of all postdocs do), what would happen to science in the US?
I'd like to think that NIH and Congress would quit pointing fingers at each other over whose job it is to deal with rewriting science policy in this country.
Maybe Obama would have his scientific advisory board step in (ha ha ha). Maybe NIH would get a bailout! HAHAHAHA.
In the ideal scenario, it would prompt a long, slow rewrite of ALL science policy in this country. Grants, tenure, all of it.
That would, I think, take years. In the meantime, all the current postdocs would probably have to go find something else to do.
Current PIs might be okay, probably the ones with tenure could last until retirement (retirement, get it? ha ha ha).
Young PIs, I don't know. It might depend on whether the grant reviewing continued. It probably would go on just as it has, for a while anyway.
But it's hard to see how any of this would make much of a difference.
Ideally, I'd like to see the entire concept of 'postdoc' go away. Other countries can keep it if they want, I don't care.
But I think the US needs to wake up and realize that a scientific slave class, even with the Stockholm Syndrome most current postdocs embrace, is eventually going to be the death of science in this country.
But it's going to require a lot of pissed off postdocs to grow some spine if we actually want to see a change. And I somehow doubt that's going to happen anytime soon.
If UAW drags postdocs into a strike, that's going to be even more interesting. Some postdocs will think nothing of it, but those are the ones most likely to be affected by visa issues (e.g. postdocs from countries where striking is an everyday occurrence).
American postdocs are more likely to be pissed off. We mostly already agreed to making a certain amount of sacrifice, making a lot less money than our peers who chose other careers.
When UAW initially tried to unionize postdocs, a group at Berkeley got together and contested it. Finally UAW realized they could unionize the foreign postdocs (now over half the postdocs in UC are foreign) and thus circumvent protests from American postdocs who were concerned about exactly what this commenter pointed out: it's going to disrupt our work at best, and at worst, end our careers.
But I think we might be screwed anyway. I had lunch with some postdocs in my department earlier this week, and I looked around the table. There were about 8 of us there, and I was the only American.
This is the face of science in the US: outsourcing.