Unionization FAQ

What union is seeking to represent USC’s postdocs?

The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW (better known as the United Auto Workers). 

What is this election for?

The upcoming secret ballot election will determine if the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW will serve as the exclusive representative to bargain with the employer on terms and conditions of employment.

Who is eligible to vote in the election?

All Postdoctoral Scholars who were employed by USC during the payroll period ending April 30, 2024 including:

  • Postdoctoral Scholar—Research Associate,
  • Postdoctoral Scholar—Fellowship Trainee, and
  • Postdoctoral Scholar—Teaching Fellow 

Can international postdocs vote in the election or be a part of the union?

Yes. International postdocs can vote in the secret ballot election because they, like other postdocs, will be bound by the results.

When and where will the election be held?

The election will occur on two consecutive days, June 20 and June 21, at two locations: University Park Campus: Doheny Memorial Library, DML 233, Intellectual Commons and at Health Sciences Campus: Harkness Conference Room 250 (CSC 250). Both polling sites will be open:

  • Thursday, June 20 from 11 am to 1 pm and from 3 pm to 5 pm
  • Friday, June 21 from 11 am to 1 pm and from 3 pm to 5 pm

How is the election decided?

The decision whether to unionize USC postdocs will be made by a simple majority of those who vote, even if only a fraction of those who are eligible to vote, actually vote.  The decision will bind postdocs in all USC schools and will impact postdocs regardless of whether they voted or not.  It is important that everyone in the bargaining unit cast a vote so that the result truly represents their wishes.

If a postdoc previously signed an authorization card (online or on paper), does that mean the postdoc must vote “yes” for a union?

No, it does not bind you.  The vote will be held by a secret ballot.  No one will know how anyone votes.  Anyone can vote as they wish during the election, regardless of whether they signed an authorization card or not.

Can postdocs opt out of the union by not voting in the election?

It does not work that way.  If you are included in the bargaining unit and the union is voted in, the union will become your exclusive bargaining representative whether you voted or not and regardless of how you voted.  The union would also be the exclusive bargaining representative for future USC postdocs whose programs or departments are in the bargaining unit.

What are unions?
Unions are third-party organizations that represent employees in negotiations with their employer concerning the terms and conditions of employment.  Unions are financed by initiation fees, monthly dues, or agency fees withheld from the employees’ paychecks as a condition of employment.

What is the NLRB?

The National Labor Relations Board (often just called the Board or NLRB) is a U. S. government agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the federal labor law covering most private employers.  The Board holds secret ballot elections to determine if the proposed bargaining unit wish to have a union be their exclusive representative to bargain with the employer on the terms and conditions of employment. The NLRB also addresses unlawful acts or unfair labor practices committed by either employers or unions.

What is a bargaining unit?

A bargaining unit is a group of similar employees who are collectively represented by a union. The bargaining unit in this instance includes almost all USC postdoctoral scholars.

What happens if the United Auto Workers win the election?

The election is decided by a majority of eligible votes cast, even if only a fraction of USC’s postdoc population actually vote.  If the UAW wins, USC postdocs will be represented by the union, and the University and the UAW begin a process known as “collective bargaining” with the goal of seeking agreement on a contract defining the terms and conditions of employment.

What does the union want in return for its efforts?

The UAW expects to be paid. In bargaining, the UAW would undoubtedly demand a “union security” clause requiring postdocs to pay dues and initiation fees or agency fees as a condition of employment. Typically, unions will demand that these fees are deducted automatically from paychecks by the university and sent directly to the union.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process by which a union and an employer negotiate the terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits, for all members in the bargaining unit.  The union has the exclusive authority to bargain on behalf of all bargaining unit members, collectively, for pay, terms of appointment, benefits and other “working conditions.”   Once this process begins, the University will be prohibited from directly negotiating terms and conditions of employment with individual members of the unit.

Who would actually negotiate a contract?

Union representatives (typically, paid union employees) work together with a small subset of bargaining unit members (postdocs), who are selected by the union, to sit at the bargaining table and negotiate on behalf of all unit members.

How does collective bargaining take place?

Collective bargaining is typically conducted in a series of meetings at which representatives of both the union and the University exchange written proposals for a union contract.  Union negotiations can be long and complex and can take months and sometimes years to reach an overall agreement.  During this time, the parties are to engage in good faith negotiations over the terms and conditions of employment.  We cannot predict how long negotiations will take. Also, during this time, employers are prohibited from making any changes to wages or benefits until the contract is negotiated and approved.  As a result, planned salary increases would be delayed until after a contract is reached.

When would a new contract become effective?

A union contract does not become effective until bargaining is complete and there is final agreement on all provisions by both sides.  Sometimes that is years after the union petition is filed with the NLRB and after some of the bargaining unit members who voted in favor of the union have left the university.  Sometimes, even after a great deal of good faith negotiating, a contract is not reached at all.  If a contract is negotiated and agreed upon by both sides, the contract is fixed in place, usually for years at a time, and must be adhered to even though conditions may change. 

What happens if the United Auto Workers and the University are unable to reach agreement?

Any contract requires the agreement of both sides.  Sometimes, after good faith bargaining, no agreement can be reached.  If that occurs, the university may make its final proposal, often called a “last, best and final offer.”  In response, the union may ask its members to vote on the proposal.  If the bargaining unit rejects the offer, there is no agreement, and the parties are at what is typically called an “impasse.”  When there is a good faith impasse, the university may unilaterally implement its last, best and final offer and the parties may continue to bargain in an effort to reach agreement.

How would unionization impact my relationship with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs or my program/department?

It is difficult to say.  USC has long encouraged postdocs to share their concerns directly with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) and many postdocs take advantage of this unique resource and opportunity.  While OPA will continue to be a resource for all USC postdocs, should UAW be voted in, OPA will no longer be able to examine the needs of individual postdocs to provide solutions that work best for each circumstance and individual.  Unions tend to propose more rigid one-size-fits-all mandates, irrespective of the different needs and circumstances of individual postdocs, the significant differences that exist between academic fields and programs, and the differences between various grants and funding sources.

How does USC compare in terms of compensation? 

USC has historically remained ahead of peer institutions in terms of salary and fringe benefits.  USC has raised postdoc minimum salaries by 23.4% over the past 5 years, from $54,080 to $66,737 this year. Currently, the University minimum salary is higher than what the United Auto Workers have negotiated on behalf of the University of California postdocs (at $64,480) and many schools within USC have elected to adopt even higher salary minimums than the University standard, upwards of $70,000.  The recent efforts of UC-UAW brought UC postdocs up to where USC has always been, and in the case of some schools, USC still remains higher in terms of compensation.

How does USC compare in terms of medical and other benefits?

Regarding health benefits, postdoctoral fellows enrolled in both HMO and PPO plans enjoy substantial advantages. Postdocs are exempt from paying deductibles, which means they do not have to meet a minimum amount in healthcare expenses before their insurance begins to cover costs. Additionally, their copays—fixed amounts paid for covered healthcare services—are relatively low, typically ranging from $10 to $20. This makes routine medical visits and treatments more affordable. Furthermore, there are low out-of-pocket maximums in place, capping the total amount they must spend on covered healthcare services each year. Once this maximum is reached, the insurance plan covers 100% of additional costs for the rest of the year, providing financial protection against unexpectedly high medical expenses.  Plans are available for individual postdocs and their family members. USC healthcare plans for postdocs provide medical, dental, vision, and mental health coverages. Other benefits include work-life counseling, financial resources (e.g. access to certified public accountants), legal support, and health/benefits services [LINK].

What childcare benefits are available for postdocs?

USC offers childcare programs at both UPC and HSC, in centers operated by Bright Horizons. Currently, postdocs are eligible for on-site childcare centers for children (ages 6 weeks through 5 years).  Just this year, it was brought to the attention of the Postdoc Office that postdocs were not eligible for back-up dependent care (ages 1-mo to 18-years and elder care).  In direct response to postdocs, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs advocated successfully to ensure postdocs would be eligible for back-up dependent care.

If the UAW wins, can I still agree with my supervisor on special terms to meet my personal situation?

No.  If the union is voted in, postdocs will lose the flexibility to address their personal situations directly with their supervisor, their departments, their School’s administration, or the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.   All terms and conditions of employment would have to be negotiated with the union and any discussions regarding individual or unique situations would be prohibited as “direct dealing.”

If UAW wins the election, how will this impact current pay and benefits for those who will be represented by the union?

There is no way to know for certain how pay and benefits may be impacted.  As a result of good faith bargaining, postdoc compensation and benefits could improve, diminish, or stay the same.

What if UAW wins the election but USC postdocs later decide they no longer want to be collectively represented by UAW?

Once a union is voted in to represent a bargaining unit, it may stay in place indefinitely.  The process of ending representation by a union, called “decertification,” is subject to a set of legal rules and can be difficult to successfully accomplish.  NLRB statistics show that, in the past five years, most attempts at decertification across the US have been unsuccessful. If the UAW is voted in, it cannot be decertified for a minimum of one year. During that one-year period, if the union and USC agree on a final agreement, that agreement would serve as a bar to any attempt to decertify the union for up to an additional three years.  While difficult to accomplish, other USC employees have been successful in decertifying their union representation after years of dissatisfaction.