Caltech Unionization Effort

A group of graduate students and postdocs at Caltech have begun the process of unionizing. They have collected over 450 union cards, a supermajority of the grad students. While union cards are not a guarantee of a vote in a union election, they are a good predictor. The next step in the process is filing for a union election, where the graduate student body and the postdocs will vote on whether they want to unionize.

After the union election, Caltech will have an opportunity to contest the results of the election. If the union vote is successful, there will be negotiations over the union contract. Caltech has stated that they would “negotiate in good faith with the union” in the event the vote goes through. In a statement to the Tech, David Chan, Dean of Graduate Studies, said that “Caltech is committed to abiding by its duties and responsibilities under the National Labor Relations Act both prior to, during and after an election, if one occurs.”

The stated goal of Caltech Grad Researchers and Postdocs United (C/GPU), the group behind the unionization effort, is to “do science effectively and well.” They believe a union would help them achieve this goal and would help them do science in a “healthier environment.” The exact priorities of things to negotiate for in a contract would have to be decided by a bargaining committee to ensure the union is fighting for what the union members want. However, these priorities are likely to be higher pay, better healthcare, better childcare, and a better way to deal with harassment, C/GPU leadership told the Tech.

According to a survey of graduate students (N=251) conducted by the C/GPU and shared with the Tech, more than 46% of grad students and postdocs who responded reported experiencing or witnessing bullying behavior, sexual harassment, or discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, or immigration status. Survey respondents also expressed dissatisfaction with the Caltech Title IX Office’s treatment of harassment and abuse cases in the past, citing long wait times and unsatisfactory results. When asked about this claim, Chan stated that “Caltech’s Unlawful Harassment and Abusive Conduct Policy specifically speaks to and prohibits harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct or bullying.”

While a supermajority of grad students and postdocs have signed union cards, there are still those that oppose a union – around 10% according to the C/GPU’s estimates. However, it is hard to track this exact number. There are several concerns cited by some grad students, including concerns over union dues. The C/GPU stated while the union does charge dues, the better contracts that the union will negotiate will result in a net increase of income for members.

Other union-related concerns cited by graduates include fear of retaliation, a change in student culture, or a reduction of the standards of Caltech. Some argue that a union would result in labs hiring fewer people from a lack of budget. However, according to the C/GPU, this has not historically been the case at other universities. Indeed, they posited that a lack of a union is hurting enrollment.

Some of these concerns are shared by Chan, who stated that “the Institute believes that a unionized structure could change the character and culture of Caltech’s research and education experience and environment.” A union would mean the whole student body would have to negotiate as one entity, which is “counter to Caltech’s current, distributed model, which favors flexibility and freedom.”

If a union is formed, it will become part of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). This means that Caltech would have to negotiate with this third party organization instead of the students themselves. In contrast to this, Chan stated that Caltech’s small size and current system “allows [Caltech] the ability to directly engage with and respond to students and postdoctoral scholars in a more personalized manner.”

“With or without a union, we need to continue to work to foster an environment where there is open dialogue and transparency and where all graduate students and postdocs feel supported, are comfortable accessing campus and community resources, and understand how to address their grievances or concerns when needed,” Chan said in his statement to the Tech.

Currently, there is a large nationwide unionization movement, which the C/GPU cites as a factor helping spark interest in the union. Many other universities have had similar unionization efforts recently as well, like Stanford, MIT, and UPenn. Caltech has sent several emails to the student body talking about unions and according to the C/GPU, after each of these emails they noticed a spike in people signing union cards.

In addition to these emails, the C/GPU claims that some in Caltech staff and faculty have been spreading misinformation about unions, including one faculty member saying that a union would result in fewer vacation days, a claim the union refutes. In response to this claim, Chan stated that “Caltech strongly rejects any notion that the Institute has engaged in efforts of misinformation, coercion, or retaliation.” He went on:

“There has been no effort, nor will there be any future action, by the Caltech administration or members of our community to spread misinformation about unionization. The Institute will not tolerate harassment, bullying, discrimination, or retaliation of any kind. We believe that it is imperative that everyone has accurate, clear information about union representation, and most importantly, that everyone has the right to form their own decision and to share that decision without any pressure from Caltech leadership, their peers, faculty colleagues, or other members of the community.”

Whether or not the C/GPU is successful at unionizing, it will have to be a collective decision, made by a majority of graduate students and postdocs. “At the end of the day,” Chan said, “graduate students and postdocs have to decide for themselves what makes the most sense for them, for their present and future colleagues, and for the campus overall. This is their decision to make.”

Correction: This article claimed that ¾ survey respondents had personally witnessed or experienced some form of bullying or discrimination. The survey (N=251) actually found that “more than 46% of grad students and postdocs who responded reported experiencing or witnessing bullying behavior, sexual harassment, or discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, or immigration status.” See also: Jessica Goodheart’s January 3rd article in The American Prospect magazine.