Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The New Labor Frontier: Unionizing Postdoctoral Students

By Bryan O'Keefe

Inside Higher Ed has a fascinating story this morning about a unionization drive involving postdoctoral students at the University of California campuses. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful and the reason for the union failure is debated throughout the article. The most common view expressed is that questionable organizing tactics were to blame for the union’s failure, not the concept of organizing, per se.

As organized labor continues to decline in the private sector, higher education has become a new frontier for union leaders. (I have written more extensively about this growing unionization trend in the August 2006 issue of Labor Watch). This postdoctoral drive probably has lessons for both universities and union organizers. For example, universities should ensure that postdoctoral students are paid well-enough, have access to some type of health care, and are given the type of workplace flexibility that many of them expect. Employees are far less likely to turn to unions if they already have the benefits that the union is promising. For union organizers, the drive shows that the same tactics they have used successfully in other areas might not work in higher education. Postdoctoral students especially are highly educated, independent people for the most part and do not take kindly to being tricked into joining a union, as the story implies happened in California.


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