While labour activists across Canada and the United States were glued to efforts to unionize Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, a much, much smaller unionization effort was unfolding at a mid-sized Ontario university. On April 14, 2021, 150 postdoctoral scholars at the University of Guelph voted 90.8 per cent in favour of joining the United Steelworkers Union (USW). It was the culmination of an 18-month grassroots campaign which resulted in making U Guelph postdocs the latest members of a growing movement of more than 10 English-language universities in Canada to improve the standing and working conditions of postdoctoral researchers in Canadian universities.
Postdocs are an unusual working class. At minimum, postdocs are academic professionals who hold a PhD but who have not yet moved into a permanent or tenure-track position, a move that is getting harder and harder. Originally intended as an extended training period expected to funnel doctoral graduates into tenure-track positions, universities now graduate far more PhDs than could ever be needed to fill faculty positions, leaving many bouncing from temporary contract to temporary contract.
This hamster wheel of temporary employment is especially problematic for postdocs trying to balance work with family or caregiving obligations. Because postdoc positions are temporary, employers often have little incentive to prioritize the well-being of postdocs at work. The hours, roles and expectations are set by individual supervisors with little oversight. Benefits such as dental care, child care, parental leave and other essential supports, like a living wage, are often not included in postdoctoral contracts. Postdocs also tend to fall between the cracks of training opportunities offered at the student or faculty level, as they technically are neither.
Concern with these issues led us to consider unionization to establish a more supportive relationship between postdocs and the university. Organizing a union campaign among postdocs was a challenge, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Postdocs in different departments rarely know each other and temporary contracts lead to a high turnover. Indeed, of the original union organizing committee that met in October 2019, only three members were still postdocs at the time of the union vote. In this context, three elements were important in a successful union drive.
First, building social space was crucial to the organizing effort. The Postdoc Society, a voluntary group we established in mid-2019, was the “home” to our organizing efforts. Although the society was not focused primarily on unionization, it created the necessary space for postdocs to meet each other and exchange stories about working conditions. The creation of a digital community through the society’s Facebook page and mailing list became vital when it was no longer possible to meet in person. We used these tools to hold biweekly coffee chats and check-ins over Zoom throughout the pandemic.
The second important element was “doing our homework.” We met with representatives from different unions and talked to other postdocs about what was important to them. The preference for an organization that already had a presence at the University of Guelph, a good reputation, and was willing to learn about our issues ultimately drove our decision to organize with USW.
One of our biggest challenges was identifying all postdocs on campus. We compiled a contact list of all known postdocs and dug into university websites to find new appointments. We circulated a digital survey to gauge support for unionization, which helped us reach new postdocs and gave us a sense of common questions or concerns surrounding unionization. With the help of USW, we researched answers to questions and shared these publicly to inform discussions around unionization. We also hosted webinars where we invited postdocs from different universities in Ontario to speak with us about their experience with their union.
The final step in our unionization playbook was to make it personal. Having postdocs who were willing to speak up publicly about their support for the unionization effort was crucial; and gave postdocs a personal connection to the movement. We began sharing personal testimonies via our email listserv, then moved to post videos to our Facebook group. A small group of volunteers contacted every postdoc we could, sharing personal reasons for supporting the unionization efforts. Initially, these efforts were spearheaded by those postdocs who were supported by their supervisors and could afford to be visible in their pro-union stance. But as more individuals publicly expressed support, we also received stories and testimonials from postdocs who were experiencing concerning working conditions, but now felt empowered to share their difficult stories.
Postdoctoral positions are often viewed as temporary training opportunities, and this perspective has been used to justify low wages and less well-supported working conditions. But postdoctoral scholars are highly qualified members of any academic community who bring expertise, skill, and experience to their roles. We believe that any institution enjoying the benefit of postdoctoral labour must consider how to best provide equitable and fair employment opportunities. Unionization leads to a defined and mutually negotiated collective agreement through which universities and postdocs can best interact and support each party’s interests. As we now begin the process that will lead to bargaining our first collective agreement with the university, it is our hope that in the future, postdoc unions across the country will join to strengthen our collective bargaining around postdoc employment opportunities and greater autonomy in Canadian tri-council funding rules and regulations for postdocs.
Laura G. Pin and Hannah L. Harrison are postdoctoral fellows at the University of Guelph.