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SHOULD RESEARCH SCIENTISTS BE UNIONIZED?

 

Should Research Scientists be Unionized?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Should Research Scientists be Unionized?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Unions traditionally are for workers in factories, offices, or the trades (i.e., trade unions), but more recently also are active in many other situations where employees feel they need protection from their employer.  Most scientists working in universities or industrial research and development (R&D) centers presently are not unionized.  However, some university science teachers, workers in science-related jobs, and hospital staff do become unionized.  In recent times, many employers have set up grievance mechanisms in order to try to preclude the need to establish unions as a protection against perceieved or actual workplace abuses.  This essay takes a closer look at the present claims for research scientists to become unionized.

Background. 

Many scientists working as professional researchers in universities now have major job problems with (1) time management, (2) obtaining sufficient money from governmental grants to support their research, and, (3) demands for dishonesty (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” ).  These very general problems now cause much job dissatisfaction for university scientists (see:  “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with their Job?  Part I” ).  All 3 large practical problems are due to misguided policies and practices with:  (1) modern universities, (2) the current research grant system, and (3) the commercialization of science (see: “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” ). 

For faculty scientists at universities and medical schools, the research time problem bothers everyone greatly, but probably is not yet severe enough to support union-based strikes or job actions.  Different levels of the research money problem are faced by everyone doing laboratory research within universities; although dissatisfaction with this situation is very widespread, official complaints are strongly prevented simply because all grantees want to continue receiving research grant support throughout their careers (i.e., do not bite the hand that feeds you!).  The corruption problem in modern science is ignored by many scientists because they are too busy worrying about their time and money problems, and do not wish to become  involved with investigations and charges that do not directly involve them personally.  Hence, the very largest job problems for scientists in universities do not readily encourage unionization and union-based protests. 

For scientists in industrial laboratories, job problems are less frequent and seem less severe than in academia.  Their problems with time often are solved or at least minimized by gaining administrative approval to hire more support staff.  Any problems with research money frequently are dealt with internally when admninistrators shift job priorities and budgets.  Problems with corruption are less prominent in industrial labs, unless professional researchers are asked to change research results or interpretations of data in order to facilitate business aspects of their employer.  Industries are more on the side of their employees than are universities, and clearly need to promote the performance of their science employees as an important part of their drive for business success; thus, there presently is only a limited need for industrial scientists to seek recourse by unionization. 

Some special situations in science could lead to unionization. 

Certain job situations for today’s professional scientists increasingly recall the historical tradition where groups of ordinary (non-science) workers formed unions to protect themselves from abusive employers.  I will briefly discuss here 3 solid examples of modern instances where efforts with unionization now are either progressing or being considered. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellows typically spend several years doing full-time research before they are able to become good candidates for employment in universities, industrial  R&D centers, or science-related positions (see:  “All About Postdocs, Part I.  What are Postdocs and What Do they Do?” ).  When the number of available new science job positions declines, as in recent years, some Postdocs stay in these positions for at least a decade; although they are pleased to be paid to do research work, they are not truly independent, have minimal job security and limited retirement benefits, and, do not have a career or status appropriate to all their long training and professional research publications.  Postdocs easily can become captive workers.  Hence, these  temporary employees increasingly feel that “The Science System” is abusive and is taking advantage of them.  In response to complaints from Postdocs at many sifferent locations, universities try to make improvements by establishing some administrative post to handle all matters concerning Postdocs.  Little ever changes, so the complaints continue; any good changes are countered by the ready availability of many new foreign Ph.D.s eagerly seeking to come here as Postdoctoral Fellows (see:  “Why Does the United States now have so Very Many Foreign Graduate Students in Science?  Part I ” ).  Recently, some local or regional groups of Postdocs are critically discussing their predicament, and are seeking to develop changes in their present job status; whether this spreading discord will result in unionization of Postdocs remains to be seen. 

University faculty are becoming unionized at some educational institutions, both here in the United States and in some foreign countries.  Several unions and related organizations now deal with educational activities and business matters, but these associations also include numerous non-science faculty.  University faculty usually are reluctant to join a union, but sooner or later come to see that there indeed is strength in numbers.  Faculty unions sometimes elicit good adjustments and improvements in such factors as salary levels, employment benefits, and, issuance of documentation about what is expected from faculty employees.  Union-derived positive changes generally affect all the faculty, rather than only members of the union.  The harsher and more one-sided modern universities become, the more will unionization of their faculty be encouraged. 

Tenure for science faculty is a specific job problem that can be found both at universities and some industrial R&D centers.  Promotion to tenured rank uses somewhat different criteria at each school, and each individual candidate is at least slightly questionable.  Although nationally a subatantial number of scientists is involved with tenure each year, this issue at any one institution concerns only some few individuals; such fragmentation means that unionization of scientists as a means to improve this problem is very difficult.  If anyone compares the situation for tenure decisions at universities having faculty unions versus those that do not have unionized faculty, then it is obvious that the rules and regulations for achieving tenured rank are much more openly stated and carefully followed by the former institutions.  Due to mistakes and abuses with the tenure decision, this complex issue is actively discussed and of ongoing interest to the professional faculty unions. Junior faculty scientists constitute a hidden national class of good potential candidates for modern unionization.  

Are there any alternatives to unions for scientists? 

In my opinion, unions presently only play a minor role for professional scientific researchers.  Since science workers in universities do have serious job problems, one must ask whether there are any other mechanisms available to advance the general job status of faculty scientists.  The answer to this question is “yes”!  Most professional scientists are members of at least one science society.  These national associations sponsor annual meetings (see: “All About ScienceMeetings” ), publish professional journals, organize educational endeavors, and promote the advancement of their discipline.  These organizations often have thousands of dues-paying members, and thus have notable similarities to large unions.  Some of the current issues for professional scientists described above seem very suitable to be addressed by the national science societies. 

Concluding discussion. 

At present, unions are not numerous amongst all the many professional research scientists.  Some of the major job-related issues faced by research scientists at universities are well-suited to be ameliorated by unionization; however, the scientists actively confronting these issues at any one institution are not numerous, and so do not constitute the large number of workers traditionally engaged by unions.  When confronted with seemingly hopeless, unfair, and downright stupid job conditions, scientists are not  being unprofessional when they turn to unions so as to resolve the several difficult job problems in their profession.  Science societies have many features that are strongly analogous to unions, and should be encouraged to start helping their member scientists to better deal with major job-related issues.  

 

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