Graduate Student and Postdoc Workers Share Goals for a Better Workplace as Union Bargaining Begins

This past February, Caltech graduate students and postdocs unionized to form Caltech Graduate Researchers and Postdocs United-United Auto Workers (CGPU-UAW) with overwhelming support. Over 76% of graduate students and 83% of postdocs voted yes, with historic voter turnouts of over 72% and 52% respectively. This win was a culmination of over two years of conversations between graduate student workers and postdocs, connecting over our shared desire to make Caltech the best it can be for all of us. With our union certified, graduate student workers (GSWs) and postdocs are in our strongest ever position to improve our working conditions.

On May 29, Caltech GSWs and postdocs began bargaining our first union contract to guarantee legally enforceable workplace rights including wages, benefits, and protections against abuse, discrimination, and unsafe workplaces. Led by graduate and postdoc bargaining teams democratically elected from among our peers, GSWs and postdocs will negotiate a contract as equals with the Caltech administration. CGPU-UAW plans to follow in the footsteps of peer institutions by having an open bargaining process. This entails constant communication with all workers throughout negotiations and an open invitation to all students and postdocs to attend bargaining sessions. During bargaining sessions, GSWs and postdocs will be privy to real-time discussions between our bargaining teams and admin, and will have the opportunity to provide immediate feedback. Those who are unable to attend negotiations will still be able to directly provide feedback to their bargaining team electronically or in peer-to-peer conversation. As a diverse group of workers, we all deserve to have our concerns addressed at the bargaining table.

But with such diversity, how do our bargaining teams ensure that they are addressing our most pressing needs? Emma Lenz, a PhD student in Aerospace elected to the GSW bargaining team, helped write, distribute, and analyze a survey of students and postdocs that will inform contract negotiations. “Having detailed survey data will help us understand how to prioritize different issues as we negotiate our contract based on different GSWs and postdocs needs,” she says, noting that better wages, healthcare, and support for international scholars’ visa renewal were among the top issues. The CGPU survey results broadly highlight the need for strong economic provisions. “I was surprised that 61% of GSWs and postdocs respondents were rent burdened,” Emma said. “This shows why our contract must address the rising cost of living in Pasadena.”

She also emphasized the ability to understand different subgroups’ priorities. “Although wages were the top priority overall, GSW and Postdoc parents prioritized reducing dependent healthcare costs most, even above wages.” These results complement those of Caltech’s Climate Survey from 2021, in which only 7% of postdoc parents felt that Caltech provided adequate childcare benefits. Emma also highlighted the importance of comments left on the survey, which often sparked informative conversations. These include working conditions essential for a healthy and equitable workplace, such as accessibility, lab safety, and protections against bullying, harassment, and discrimination. This again recapitulates the 2021 Climate Survey, which found that nearly 40% of graduate respondents seriously considered leaving Caltech for reasons including conflicts with supervisors or unwelcoming environments.  As evidenced by both CGPU- and Caltech-administered surveys, the Institute’s status quo fails to meet the basic economic needs and workplace rights of far too many GSWs and postdocs.

Each of the above issues has been addressed in union contracts at peer institutions. A group of Caltech grads and postdocs dove into contracts at Columbia, NYU, UC, Yale, Mt. Sinai, USC, Harvard, UW, Georgetown, MIT, and Brown to analyze the improvements and specific language workers everywhere have won through their unions. This research has played an important role in guiding the bargaining team as they prepare for the start of bargaining. For example, the most recent UC contract won enforceable protections against all forms of discrimination, harassment, and abusive conduct in tandem with a well-defined grievance process. James Williams, a PhD student in Electrical Engineering and one of the GSW bargaining team members said, “The grievance article is one of the most vital components of the contract as it is the mechanism by which we can enforce our rights and benefits included in other articles.” Currently, at Caltech the grievance process occurs behind closed doors, with no set timelines and no right to peer advocacy. James went on to explain, “At universities like Yale and the UC campuses, students have won a strong grievance process which include enforceable timelines, an appeal to a neutral arbitrator, and a parallel process. A parallel process means that students can pursue their grievances through the already-existing infrastructure such as the Title IX office while simultaneously using the grievance process.”

From the results of the CGPU-UAW bargaining survey as well as the thousands of one-on-one conversations across campus between workers, GSWs and postdocs drafted initial bargaining demands—broadly shared goals among grad and postdoc workers in the major categories of wages, compensations, and benefits; justice in the workplace; international scholar issues; workplace rights and protections; and union rights. As bargaining begins, we hope administrators bargain in good faith, taking the time to listen to their workers’ concerns and earnestly develop solutions. We are optimistic that by coming together as friends and colleagues and staying informed and engaged, graduate student and postdoc workers can negotiate a union contract which sets a new standard in academic work. Together, we can forge a stronger, more welcoming Caltech for everyone.

Jasmine Emtage is a PhD student in Biology, David Abramovitch is a PhD student in Applied Physics, and Aditi Narayanan is a PhD student in Biology.