Caltech Graduate Students and Postdocs Will Vote on Unionization

Caltech Graduate Students and Postdocs Will Vote on Unionization

David Abramovitch, Sam Whitehead | Opinion

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On November 30, 2023, Caltech grad students and postdocs filed union authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB). Earlier that day, around 100 grads and postdocs joined together to deliver a letter to Provost Tirrell, signed by over 500 grads and postdocs, requesting a fair union election process and that the Institute remain neutral rather than engaging in anti-union tactics. Officially filing authorization cards signed by a significant majority of all grads and postdocs was a major milestone in the CGPU campaign, and the result of thousands of conversations since January 2023.

On January 31 and February 1, grads and postdocs will be able to vote to form our union, Caltech Grads and Postdocs United-United Auto Workers (CGPU-UAW). The election is by secret ballot and will be conducted by the NLRB. Votes will be cast in person in Ramo auditorium from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. - 7 p.m. both days, except for a small number of eligible mail-in voters assigned to work outside the LA area. We’re excited to have rapidly reached an election agreement with Caltech, and believe it is a testament to the momentum of the CGPU campaign. Although Caltech objected to Postdoctoral Fellow Trainees being included in the bargaining unit, eventually they agreed to allow all postdocs to vote, with 50 Postdoc Fellows voting under challenge (generally speaking, Postdoctoral Fellow Trainees are postdocs who are funded through external sources but are sponsored and supervised by Caltech). We also reached an agreement to have two bargaining units, which means postdocs and grads will bargain separate union contracts, but be part of the same union and continue to coordinate closely.

A “yes” vote in the upcoming election supports forming CGPU-UAW. A union enables graduate students and postdocs to negotiate with Caltech through a democratic process, which would provide a powerful voice to improve our working conditions. All grads and postdocs will have the chance to help determine what issues to prioritize and vote to elect bargaining committees of grads and postdocs. Ultimately, all grads and postdocs vote to ratify any proposed contracts before they go into effect. By forming CGPU, Caltech researchers would join over 100,000 academic workers already unionized with UAW, and Caltech itself would join dozens of other universities and research institutes that already have unions—including University of California, MIT, Stanford, University of Washington, University of Southern California, Columbia, Harvard, Mt. Sinai, and the National Institute of Health.

Without a union, the Caltech administration makes all decisions relating to graduate student and postdoc working conditions. Many grads and postdocs believe this process has failed to provide adequate wages, healthcare benefits, and protections against abusive conduct, among other issues. For example, less than 10% of grad and postdoc respondents to a CGPU workplace survey believe the institute provides accountability in cases of abusive conduct, and 553 grad students signed a petition protesting cuts to their healthcare plan in 2020. Furthermore, the average yearly raise for grads from 2011 to 2022 was just 2.9% (unprecedented 21% raises were announced shortly after the CGPU campaign’s first event in December 2022). In contrast, union bargaining processes have made significant gains to working conditions across academia. In recent years, grad students and postdocs at other universities, including grads at Caltech “rival” MIT and nearby UCs and USC, have ratified contracts with unprecedented raises; improvements to healthcare, childcare, and disability accommodations; enforceable protections against harassment, abuse, and discrimination; and protections for international researchers. By helping to ensure all researchers’ needs are met, we believe these improvements benefit not only grads and postdocs but Caltech and science as a whole.

Leading up to the election, grads and postdocs involved with CGPU-UAW will continue holding info sessions, coffee hours, and informal discussions with their peers. More information, including gains in union contracts at other universities, frequently asked questions, and information for international scholars is available on the CGPU website at Previous stories, including an editorial previously published in _The California Tech _are available at

David Abramovitch is a 3rd year graduate student in Applied Physics. Sam Whitehead is a postdoctoral scholar in Biology.