Post doc plight for basic rights

By Roy Ribitzky

Editor’s note: This column is part two of a two-part series addressing the employment issues that post-doctoral researchers at UMass face. Names have been changed by request and in order to protect the identities of those interviewed.

Post doc’s low wages aren’t simply about “more money.” Professors, deans, and students have access to affordable healthcare, salaries, and protection from unjust firings: “We’re just asking for the same things, nothing unreasonable – just asking for the standard,” added Karl, one of the post-doctoral students.

Courtesy Fihliwe/Flickr

Currently, UMass does not meet the minimum pay standards established by the National Institute of Health. The NIH is the medial research agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Protection is the key in these slow negotiations. Approximately 70 percent of post-docs are foreign workers staying here on restrictive work visas, leaving them more vulnerable. Spouses of foreign workers are not allowed to work, preventing a second income coming home. If fired, they are forced to leave the country immediately. “Which company is 70 percent international?” asks Karl. “Every year UMass drags out these negotiations is another year UMass doesn’t have to pay,” said Emile, another post-doctoral student.

Last spring, one post-doc  who was here on a work visa became pregnant and asked her PI for the financial support and time off for child care – mandatory by law for all state workers – but he allegedly threatened to write a bad recommendation if she filed for it. As she was not a U.S. citizen, and UMass has been slow about contract negotiations, the woman could not press charges and was ultimately forced to leave.

Another alleged case involved a foreign post-doc who travelled overseas for research but was held up at airport security for over a day, presumably a “random security check” on a person of color. He was fired when he got back to UMass for not “showing up to work on time,” according to officials from the Graduate Employee Organization.

“We need a contract for when conflict arises,” Karl remarks.

Don’t expect any strikes, though. “Most post-docs love their work,” they say, “They don’t take vacations, they enjoy the research they are doing, spending way more than 40 hours a week working. UMass should understand we over work. We mentor a lot of grads and undergrads, which is outside of our work requirements.”

Multiple requests for comments by University officials on the UMass bargaining team and principal investigators have not been returned. The head of the bargaining team, Susan Chinman of the Graduate Deans Office, said she was not the right person to talk to and referred me to UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski, who, after postponing a meeting until after the release date of this article (due to the snow storm last weekend), released this statement via e-mail: “UMass Amherst values our post-docs and the important role they play in our research community. The University does not comment about details of ongoing contract bargaining. We have been meeting with union representatives regularly on the Amherst campus since October 2010, and we are working in good faith to reach a first-ever contract agreement with the post-doc union.”

Why it takes so long for the University to actively support the very people that bring us our valued research is outrageous. It makes it seem like a level of incompetence, or at least, a level of slowness in handling important matters, is required to become an administrative leader on this campus. It does not help the University either when they remain nearly silent on issues that directly impact our community. The UMass bargaining team claims to represent our interests. When the team says meeting federal minimum standards would be a “burden on the University,” as Emile and Karl were allegedly told this summer, I feel I am being misrepresented, and so should all students, faculty, and staff.

But it still has taken over a year and a half for PRO/UAW to engage the public. Before interviewing union members, I never knew about post-docs and their plight for basic rights. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, is an organization bent on publicly securing the rights of workers. UMass has a poor reputation when it comes to solving simple issues on a reasonable timetable, but has weak knees for outside pressure. UMass should do more than say “we respect our post-docs and the research they do.” They should put their money where their mouth is. We can do better.

Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]