My name is Ruby Byrne, and I am a postdoc in PMA. I’m reaching out to all of you in my Caltech community to share my experiences with unionization and to counter misinformation I’ve heard surrounding our own upcoming union election.
As you know, at the end of this month we will have the opportunity to vote to form a union. The election will be in-person on January 31 and February 1 in Ramo Auditorium, at 9AM-1PM and 3PM-7PM on both days. I’m thrilled that we have this opportunity to effect change for ourselves and future Caltech postdocs and grad students!
Before coming to Caltech, I was a unionized grad student and union steward at the University of Washington, and my experience there informs my perspective. At UW, I saw how important unionization is for ensuring that academic workers have agency in our workplaces. As a steward, I worked with my union to negotiate competitive contracts and to resolve problems in my department, including cases of improper pay, access to childcare, and instances of sexual harassment. Our union was critical for ensuring these things were addressed quickly and fairly. Our union was also extremely popular—over 70% of my fellow grad students voluntarily paid union dues to support our collective efforts.
In conversations with my colleagues in the past months, I’ve noticed that many of us have misconceptions about unionization. Most of us have never been in unions before, so it makes sense that we don’t understand how they operate! However, some of this misinformation comes directly from the university leadership that has publicly opposed our unionization. The CGPU website has an in-depth discussion of this.
One of the pernicious pieces of misinformation I’ve heard is that we don’t need a union because we can already negotiate the terms of our employment with the Caltech administration. This misunderstands just how unique and important union bargaining is. Student or postdoc associations can make recommendations, but only a union provides us with the right to negotiate an enforceable contract with Caltech. Currently, Caltech retains sole decision-making power in determining our working conditions, but with a union the process is inherently democratic—students and postdocs can watch the bargaining process and vote on the final version of their contract. Recognizing the shortcomings of the current system, the Graduate Student Council has endorsed unionization, citing their long battle for a living wage and the pandemic-era cuts to student health benefits, among other issues. A union is the only method by which we can actually bargain with Caltech on equal footing, have a legally binding contract, and have robust mechanisms to intervene if that contract is violated.
Another piece of misinformation is that unionization will disrupt our workplace flexibility. However, unions generally preserve flexibility! Because union decisions are made democratically, and academic researchers overwhelmingly value flexibility, there is no reason we would collectively bargain a contract that did not maintain that. At UW, the postdoc union successfully fought university efforts to reclassify them as hourly workers, which would have prohibited them from freely working overtime as needed. Unionization has not, at any other University, interfered with open communication with advisors, academic colleagues, or administrators (the one exception is that supervisors are legally prohibited from coercing or questioning us about our union activities). Instead, unions are a critical safety net for students and postdocs who experience issues that they may not feel comfortable sharing with their advisors.
One of the main reasons I support unionization is that it allows for more effective intervention in cases of harassment and discrimination. While some might argue that effective protections already exist, unions can protect us when those other systems fall short. Without a union, the only option at Caltech to address instances of discriminatory harassment is through the Title IX office. That office is subject to regulations defined by the federal government that limit its ability to respond effectively, in many cases leaving victims unprotected (see here and here for more details). At UW, our union enabled protections against abuse, harassment, and discrimination that went above and beyond Title IX regulations. Someone who experienced harassment was able to invoke those rules to initiate a well-defined and survivor-led grievance process, even having access to legal representation funded by our union dues if needed. These protections existed in addition to the Title IX processes, so victims had the opportunity to report through the union’s grievance process, the Title IX process, or both.
As we approach our election, I urge all of you to make your voice heard by voting. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or want to discuss this further. You can also read more about why grads and postdocs are voting “yes” to unionize here, about issues and what other unions have achieved for grads and postdocs, and more responses to misinformation about unionizing here.
NSF Postdoctoral Fellow