A day after they staged a protest, the University of Washington’s postdoctoral researchers on Thursday learned the university won’t stand in the way of their vote to form a union.

Share story

A day after hundreds of University of Washington postdoctoral researchers took over parts of Gerberding Hall in protest, the university announced it wouldn’t stand in the way of a vote to determine whether they can form a union.

About 200 of the “postdocs,” as they’re known, brought their laptops and their research papers to the third floor of the administration building Wednesday and worked there all day — part of a “work-in” to draw attention to their cause.

Postdocs have already earned a Ph.D. or medical degree, and are working as researchers for the UW, which is one of the biggest recipients of federal research dollars in the nation.

“We’re doing the cutting-edge research that brings in funding to the university,” said Max Friedfeld, a chemistry postdoc who received his Ph.D. from Princeton University, and who has been active in the movement.

In October, a majority of the 1,100 postdocs signed authorization cards saying they wanted to form a union. But the university argued that about 40 percent of the 1,100 postdocs shouldn’t be part of the bargaining unit because they included jobs that were defined as faculty positions, and governed by the faculty code.

The UW believed that faculty members should organize as faculty, and not be included in a separate bargaining unit, said UW spokesman Victor Balta in an email. And the state law on this point was unclear, he said.

But to the postdocs, the move seemed like a “very clear attempt to chip away” at their cause and delay a vote, Friedfeld said.

On March 1, the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) — the agency that oversees union elections — ruled against the UW, clearing the way for an election.

Friedfeld said the postdocs had gotten word that the UW might appeal PERC’s March 1 decision, delaying the vote for as much as six more months. That led to their decision to hold a work-in on Wednesday.

But on Thursday, the UW announced it wouldn’t appeal PERC’s decision on who could be part of the bargaining unit.

Balta said there are still about 130 positions that the UW doesn’t think should be part of the union, but that it would settle that issue after the election.

Why form a union? Many postdocs are here from other countries, and being represented by a union could give them better protections, as well as access to union lawyers who could help defend them against deportation, said Parisa Hosseinzadeh, a biochemistry postdoc from Iran.

The postdocs are also seeking a family-leave policy, better wages, and better access to health care and subsidized day care, Friedfeld said. With no family-leave policy, “it makes it really difficult to be a scientist, a researcher, if you also want to have a family,” he said.

An online vote is expected to happen in about a month, Friedfeld said. If the postdocs vote in favor of unionizing, they’ll be represented by UAW 4121 — the union that represents UW graduate students.

If they’re successful at forming a union, the UW postdocs would be the seventh largest on campus.

About 40 to 45 percent, or 20,000, of the UW’s employees are unionized. In all, 12 unions operate on campus.