California Association of Professional Scientists joins a national trade union to boost bargaining power

An organisation representing nearly 6000 professional scientists working for the US state of California has voted to affiliate to the nationally organised United Auto Workers (UAW). The decision follows the trend of academic researchers and scientists in the US unionising to improve their working conditions following several high-profile and successful strikes at major research universities in the country over the last couple of years.

People on a protest march holding placards that read Defiance for Science and Scientists Strike Back

Source: © Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Press/Alamy Stock Photo

CAPS members held strikes in November 2023 over pay and conditions. The union hopes increased bargaining power from affiliation to the Union of Auto Workers will help them win new contracts and avoid further strikes

California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) members are scientists and managers who work in more than 50 government departments across California. After a unanimous recommendation from its board of directors in February, a significant majority of members voted in favour of affiliating to UAW.

In December 2023, more than 5000 early-career researchers at the US National Institutes of Health voted by an overwhelming majority to form a union, which was the first such arrangement of US federal government scientists. ‘We won our union!’ NIH Fellows United-UAW announced at the time on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter. ‘We are the largest union of federal employees to form in more than a decade, and the first union of Fellows ever at a federal research facility. We’ve made history together,’ the post said.

CAPS leadership has noticed that scientists represented by UAW-affiliated unions are winning by striking, or with credible threats of striking, and said these victories are raising the standard for research scientists across the country. The leadership of CAPS emphasises that as an affiliate of UAW it would have the support to fight for pay equity and would be in a stronger bargaining position to win the contracts the organisation and its members are seeking.

For example, in 2022 an unprecedented 40-day strike by tens of thousands of academics at the University of California (UC) system and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory over pay and working conditions ended with a record contract that gave postdocs at UC campuses a 57% salary increase. It made them the highest paid postdocs at any US university and gave them fully paid family leave for up to eight weeks, as well as childcare support and other benefits. Meanwhile, academic researchers at UC campuses received payrises of up to 34%, and student workers saw their salaries jump almost 80%, CAPS noted.

A strike is definitely on the table, but the hope is that we don’t get there

More recently, last year postdocs and academic researchers at the University of Washington belonging to UAW had a big win after striking for nearly a week. They secured their first union contract, which provided postdocs and academic scientists with payrises of around 30% or more.

Earlier this year, graduate student workers at Washington State University (WSU) won their contract demands after striking for just a couple of hours. Their final contract included a 49% increase in base salary and significant paid parental leave, according to CAPS.

The organisation says this latest win is part of a larger movement of UAW actively organising scientists across the US west coast and the broader US. CAPS suggests that the successes in recent years shortened negotiations at WSU because the university knew that CAPS had the necessary resources and leverage to make demands.

As a UAW affiliate, CAPS says it will have the support to fight for pay equity and win significantly better contracts. Membership offers power and experience negotiating with employers, political advocacy at the local, state and federal levels, and immediate access to UAW’s over $800 million strike fund.

CAPS members, who have been without official contracts for more than four years, held a three-day strike to express concerns over their compensation and working conditions in November 2023. CAPS created an internal strike hardship fund at that time, and now its members can also access UAW’s strike fund.

‘There is a lot of momentum in the academic sector, and a lot of that is carrying forward to other sectors where scientists and researchers work,’ says Hannah Johnson, secretary of CAPS and a research scientist at the California department of public health.

‘A strike is definitely on the table, but the hope is that we don’t get there,’ she tells Chemistry World. ‘Having additional negotiation power, maybe we can get to a fair and equitable contract without that.’