Following the C/GPU majority support rally at Caltech Hall, discussions about grad and postdoc unionization have become increasingly urgent. We are writing to endorse the movement to form a labor union for graduate students and postdocs at Caltech. Our research is diverse, spanning microbiology, environmental science, systems biology, quantum optics, and gravitational physics. Forming a union would empower us to negotiate better working conditions, which in turn will improve our ability to produce world-class research and teach world-class students. We can learn from our colleagues at institutions like University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California, and MIT to build a strong union that supports all grads and postdocs—both by making concrete gains at the bargaining table and building a stronger community.
Unions are composed of workers and are fundamentally democratic organizations that serve to improve working conditions and preserve positive workplace policies. Over the years, and especially as the unionization campaign has ramped up, we’ve had many conversations with our friends and colleagues about what we’d like to change and what we’d like to protect. Our community wants improvements, like paid medical leave, access to affordable childcare, better career development, and protections for international scholars. Likewise, there are aspects of our work we almost universally want to preserve, like flexible working hours and close relationships with colleagues and mentors.
The results of a preliminary bargaining survey that asked grads and postdocs what they would like to improve or preserve about working at Caltech reiterate what we’ve heard around our workplaces: Pasadena is an increasingly expensive place to live, and our wages simply don’t keep up. Graduate students received an unprecedented salary increase for the 2023-2024 academic year, after our unionization efforts were underway and at the conclusion of the historic academic workers strike in the University of California system. Our wage increase, which put us on par with peer institutions like MIT and Columbia, is a direct example of how efforts to unionize are already yielding fruit.
Financial burdens are not the only factor preventing many of us from doing our best research. According to the Campus Climate Survey that Caltech conducted in late 2021, nearly one-third of graduate students had observed hostile or intimidating conduct on campus. Across all campus community members who reported hostile conduct to the appropriate authorities, more than half felt that the unwelcome behavior was not adequately addressed. Every author of this piece has friends and colleagues who have experienced bullying or harassment from peers and advisors or worked in physically unsafe conditions. When we are unionized, we will have the power to negotiate stronger safety nets for researchers: for example, transition funding when changing advisors and more robust grievance procedures like those recently won by UC workers. Both the UC Grad Student Researcher and Postdoc contracts provide representation during the grievance process (usually by a trained peer), require UC to implement interim measures so that the student or postdoc can continue working safely during the investigation, and allow appeals to a neutral third party. The mere existence of this process places greater pressure on UC to resolve cases fairly and amicably so that grads and postdocs can continue to have careers in science even after workplace disputes.
Unionizing gives all of us, including the readers and the authors of this piece, a voice to make these and other improvements a reality. Without a union, Caltech has sole authority to make changes to our working conditions, with or without our input. With a union, the grads and postdocs we elect to our bargaining teams meet Caltech as equals and exchange proposals. This results in obvious benefits—like being able to negotiate better health benefits and vacation days—but it also gives us opportunities for input should the unexpected occur. When the state of Washington made changes to its minimum wage laws, the University of Washington attempted to limit some postdocs to 40 hour workweeks in order to avoid paying overtime or increasing wages. Postdocs pushed back through union contract negotiations and ultimately prevailed, preserving the flexible working hours that are so important to effective research. Crucially, this flexibility was written into a legally enforceable contract.
Of course, workplace improvements won’t just fall into our laps the moment we form a union. Informed participation is critical to success. We are already signing authorization cards, surveying our bargaining priorities, and participating in town halls and rallies. After voting to form a union, we’ll need to choose the grads and postdocs that will represent us at the bargaining table and stay informed and up to date with the progress of contract negotiations. And when a tentative agreement with Caltech is reached, we will all need to take the time to learn what is in the contract and vote on ratification. Our partnership with UAW means we have legal support and experienced negotiators that can help us succeed, but this will be our union. We, Caltech grads and postdocs, will run it, and we will be the authors of its success.
This may seem daunting, but high participation at other Universities proves it is possible. A majority of the 3,000 grads at neighboring USC participated in reviewing and endorsing their initial bargaining demands. USC grads also practice open bargaining, which allows any grad student worker to join and observe contract negotiations. Their bargaining team keeps the entire grad student body up to date on contract negotiations through consistent updates and department-level coordinators. The authors of this piece believe open bargaining is in the best interests of the grad student and postdoc body and endorse the use of this practice in our future contract negotiations. Prior to their historic strike, 36,558 out of approximately 48,000 eligible workers at UC participated in their strike authorization vote, with 98% voting “yes”. At MIT, over 1,000 grad student employees participated in their contract ratification vote, with just over 95% voting “yes”. With a majority of grads and postdocs having signed union authorization cards, we have already witnessed the power of mass participation among Caltech workers. We are excited to see where that energy can take us.
Thanks to academic worker movements that have come before us, we are well-positioned to carry Caltech towards a brighter future. To quote a recent Caltech alumnus who supports our effort to unionize, “By its nature, a commitment to a union is a commitment to helping those around you and to receiving help from them. It is a hopeful act.” Our unionization effort is not based on dissatisfaction; if we didn’t love our research and our colleagues, if we truly believed there was no reason to care, we would not devote so many hours in a day or words on a page to effecting change. Researchers who don’t need to worry about affording rent, accessing healthcare, or being harassed can more effectively expand the boundaries of knowledge and teach the next generation. It is our firm conviction that unionization is in the best interests not only of graduate students and postdocs, but of Caltech and science as a whole.
If you have questions on unionization, you’re probably not alone! Come chat with your peers at any of the open forums that the Caltech Grads and Postdocs United campaign is hosting or reach out at https://caltechgpu.org/contact/.