Frequently Asked Questions

Make an informed choice! Here are some common questions about forming a union. Don’t see your question here? Get in touch here.

General Questions:

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What is NIH Fellows United?

We are fellows who are coming together to form a union in order to improve science careers and our experience working at NIH. Right now, a growing number of fellows are signing authorization cards to support forming a union. If you haven’t had a chance to sign, get in touch.

Why create a union?

Forming a union  is the only way to have the power to negotiate with NIH management as equals and reach a legally binding contract that gives us enforceable workplace improvements. It also will strengthen the voice of researchers in an increasingly difficult political environment. 

With collective bargaining, fellows set our priorities and our agenda—and we elect fellows from among ourselves as representatives to negotiate on equal footing with NIH management for improvements such as salary increases, career development resources, parental leave, protections from harassment and discrimination, and much more. Additionally, we hope to gain more support and recognition for our research contributions which make intramural research at NIH possible.

Without a union, NIH management does not need to get the input of employees and has unilateral power to change workplace conditions or decide whether to make improvements.

How can I support forming a union?

The first step is to sign an authorization card, if you haven’t had a chance to do that, get in touch. We’ll build a strong union and win enforceable workplace protections by getting majority participation. That means fellows in every IC talking to their colleagues and friends about forming a union. If you want to know more about how to do that, reach out here.

Who classifies as a fellow?

Our effort includes fellows at the postbaccalaureate, predoctoral, and postdoctoral career stages, such as:

  • IRTA Fellows
  • CRTA Fellows
  • Visiting Fellows
  • Research Fellows
  • Clinical Fellows
  • Other early career researchers in non-permanent positions

If you aren’t sure if you are a fellow, get in touch!

What are my rights when forming a union?

We all have a legal right to organize for better working conditions with our colleagues. You cannot legally be retaliated against in any way by your PI or by NIH management. We also have safety in numbers, if a majority of fellows support the union, we can’t be singled out as individuals.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, protected by the law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, NIH fellows elect peer representatives to negotiate as equals with the NIH management. These negotiations result in a proposed contract called a tentative agreement which guarantees the terms and conditions of employment for fellows. All fellows will then have a vote in democratically approving the tentative agreement. If approved, the tentative agreement becomes a legally-binding contract.

Through collective bargaining, research workers at other institutions have negotiated improvements in their wages, benefits, job security, leaves, protections against harassment and discrimination, and many other terms and conditions of their employment. Without collective bargaining, NIH has unilateral power to change our working conditions.

Can fellows form a union despite being trainees?

The work we do at the NIH is essential to the institution’s research mission. Without fellows at the NIH, research would grind to a halt. There are lots of jobs where you train and develop your skill set while working. The fact that we’re considered trainees doesn’t change the fact that we have the right as workers to form a union.

What have unionized researchers at other institutions accomplished?

Some gains secured by other unionized research workers include:

  • Minimum pay scales that better support the high cost of living in the expensive metro areas where most research jobs are located
  • Enforceable protections against discrimination and harassment
  • Family friendly policies such as paid family leave and childcare subsidies
  • Minimum appointment lengths
  • Resolution of workplace disputes through a neutral third party
  • Political leverage on issues that help researchers, such as science funding and immigration policy
What does it mean to be a member of a union?

Signing an authorization card is the first step, but it is not the same as becoming a member. Once our first contract is ratified, all fellows will have the opportunity to become members of our union. It is an individual decision whether to join as a member, but a supermajority of fellows choosing to join will make our union stronger and allow us to effectively enforce our new rights. Members will be able to participate in the democratic decision making processes of our union and they will support our work in fighting for all NIH fellows by paying dues.

Can I sign a card even if I’m leaving soon?

Yes! We are part of a broader movement to make all research workplaces better. If you are leaving soon, you can still support the effort while you are here by signing and talking to your current and incoming colleagues about forming a union.

How does having a union work when it’s common for fellows to be at NIH for short periods of just 2 to 3 years?

Most people change institutions several times during their research career. The transitory nature of our jobs makes it easier for our employers to mistreat us, making it even more important for us to organize. We’re part of a broader researcher labor movement, and every research workplace that organizes makes science careers better.

Process of Forming a Union:

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What is the process of forming a union and bargaining a contract?

  1. Fellows form a diverse organizing committee to gather information and make a plan to form a union.
  2. Fellows sign cards saying they want to hold a union election
  3. FLRA certifies that there is sufficient interest and orders a secret ballot election of all NIH fellows
  4. A majority of fellows vote to form a union
  5. Fellows elect a bargaining committee of fellows.
  6. Fellows fill out comprehensive bargaining surveys, hold discussions, request information from NIH management, and gather feedback to draft their initial bargaining priorities.
  7. Initial bargaining demands are sent to all fellows for review, and fellows vote on whether or not to approve them.
  8. The bargaining committee negotiates as equals with NIH management and provides regular updates to all fellows. Fellows engage in collective action over their demands.
  9. Once a tentative agreement is reached at the bargaining table, all fellows vote on whether or not to ratify the agreement.
What does “exclusive representation” mean?

Exclusive representation means that the union NIH fellows are forming, NIH Fellows United / UAW, is the union for all NIH fellows. If the union is formed, fellows will be able to elect a bargaining team (made up of fellows) to negotiate with NIH management and reach a tentative agreement. Without exclusive representation, NIH management could undermine the bargaining process by negotiating with an organization other than the democratically elected bargaining team chosen by fellows.

What is a union authorization card?

When you sign a union authorization card, you are joining the growing number of fellows who are calling for a union election. Once at least 30% of fellows have signed, we will be able to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority for a union election.

You can see a sample card below. If you haven’t had a chance to sign yet, get in touch.

Why We’re Forming a Union with UAW:

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How did fellows choose to join UAW?

In Summer of 2021, a group of NIH Fellows voted to request support from UAW to help form a union. Following this decision, the UAW International Union pledged to support NIH Fellows with a card campaign to form a union. UAW is the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. UAW has historically been one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. In recent decades, more than 80,000 workers in higher education have joined, making UAW the single largest union of academic workers across the US. UAW has a great track record of successfully organizing research workers and helping research workers win meaningful improvements to their working conditions through collective bargaining.

There are UAW members working at: 

  • University of California system (47,000)
  • University of Massachusetts system (3,600)
  • NYU (2,000)
  • University of Washington (6,000)
  • California State University system (10,000)
  • University of Connecticut (2,500)
  • Columbia University (5,900)
  • Boston College (800)
  • The New School (900)
  • Harvard University (4,000)

These workers include graduate student researchers, graduate student instructors, postdocs, postbacs, and staff scientists. About 1 in 10 postdocs in the United States are in UAW. The only unionized postbacs and staff scientists at universities in the US are in UAW.

Why are we forming a union instead of an NIH-affiliated advocacy organization?

Many researchers at other institutions who have been involved in institutional advocacy organizations such as postdoc associations and student governments still support unionization. Groups like Fellows Committee have an important role to play, but only by forming a union can fellows collectively bargain a legally binding contract over the terms and conditions in our role as workers at NIH.

Additionally, as more researchers form unions, fellows will have a stronger voice to advocate on broader issues such as increasing public investment in research, better visa and immigration policies for international researchers, and better working conditions for all researchers.

Will I have to pay dues?

Fellows will not pay dues until after negotiating and voting to ratify their first contract. Once a contract is ratified, each individual fellow can decide whether or not to become a dues-paying member. Dues provide the resources that enable fair and effective union representation and a strong and active union. UAW membership dues are just 1.44% of gross income and are automatically deducted. 

Initiation fees, like dues, are set by UAW membership. Each fellow will pay a one-time $10 initiation fee when they become a member. All dues and the initiation fees are automatically deducted. Fellows only have the option to pay dues after we negotiate and ratify our first contract.

Typically, workers who form a union find that the value of improvements from their collective bargaining agreement more than balance out the cost of dues. In other workplaces where researchers have decided to form a union with UAW, a majority of workers choose to become members and pay dues because they see value in a strong and well functioning union.

How is dues money allocated? What are dues used for?

Dues allow our union to operate by and for fellows because our union is funded by and for fellows. We will not be funded by the NIH, by a non-profit, or by any other outside entity, which gives us independence and democracy that an institutionally affiliated advocacy organization cannot have.

Most of the work of enforcing the contract and representing membership is financially supported by the Local Union. The Local Union receives 28% of its dues to support the following:

  • Educating new employees about their rights and the union
  • Contract negotiations
  • Advising members in difficult situations and supporting them through contract enforcement grievances
  • Events, including educational seminars on topics like visa and immigration rights, healthcare, and taxes
  • Advocacy for public policy that supports research and researchers

Another 25.5% of dues goes to the International Union’s General Fund, which provides technical support for contract negotiations and contract enforcement and supports new organizing campaigns, including NIH Fellows United. The remaining dues are allocated to the Strike and Defense Fund (44%) and Community Action Program (2.5%). Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if the balance is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union. 

Dues allocated to the International Union will support NIH Fellows during contract negotiations by providing:

  • Technical and legal support for fellows’ contract negotiations
  • Experienced negotiators to help achieve fellows’ goals at the bargaining table
  • Researchers who can help independently analyze NIH finances and federal regulations to help make decisions about bargaining proposals

International Union dues will also continually support NIH Fellows outside of contract negotiations by providing:

  • Legal advice and advocacy to impact policy makers, especially those in Washington, DC. For example, in 2017 UAW International filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case challenging the Trump administration’s travel ban. In 2016, UAW helped win the Optional Practical Training STEM extension
  • Effective response to federal policy. In July 2020, the UAW filed a declaration to support a lawsuit challenging the H-1B entry ban announced on June 22 highlighting the detrimental impacts on affected UAW Academic Workers. In April 2020, the President of the UAW International wrote to Congressional leadership urging action to protect researchers and research funding in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Guidance on grievance and arbitrations. For example, UAW International aided UC Postdocs in winning more than $3 million in back pay.
  • Advice on best practices for ensuring strong education and mobilization programs to keep members involved.
  • Other services as requested by the Local.

In addition, dues help support new organizing campaigns. For example, the organizing staff and legal support for the NIH Fellows United campaign is paid by current UAW members’ dues. Also, union dues have gone towards legal and organizing resources that have have been key to major victories for academic workers including:

  • The passage of California SB 201, which was the culmination of a decades-long fight to extend collective bargaining rights to Research Assistants at University of California.
  • The recent landmark NLRB decision extended collective bargaining rights to Teaching and Research Assistants at private universities, as well as the organizing resources that led to the subsequent representation election victory of Columbia University TAs and RAs.

A portion of dues money also goes to support political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members. For example, UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform, which would include more visa access and an improved green card process, and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics.

Is UAW a democratic and transparent organization?

The fundamental values of UAW are transparency and accountability. Last year, 14 former UAW leaders charged with corruption pleaded guilty. Their actions are appalling, highly unusual, and go against the fundamental values that UAW has upheld for over 80 years. 

The former leaders involved were stripped of their positions and UAW membership. None of these leaders ever held elected positions within any of the academic or research unions within UAW.

International Researchers:

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Can international researchers participate?

Yes! If you are working in the US, you have a right to participate in unions in your workplace, regardless of immigration status. Visa requirements in no way compromise any fellow’s right to belong to a union. No academic union members have ever reported any complications arising from being both an International researcher and a unionized employee.

In fact, international researchers hold many of the leadership positions in UAW Academic Worker locals. International researchers in other unionized workplaces have found that their union is one of their most effective ways to have a voice in US policies that affect them.

Could signing a union authorization card jeopardize or delay application for permanent residence (green card)?

Since international researchers at the NIH have the same legal labor rights as U.S. citizens, signing an authorization card will not jeopardize or delay application for legal permanent residence. Authorization cards that get submitted to FLRA (the federal authority that verifies and counts the cards) are not released by FLRA to the NIH or other government agencies. Thousands of Postdocs, Postbacs, and other academic workers have signed union authorization cards in large unionization drives around the country since 2008, without any reported instance of delay or rejection of applications as a result of signing a card or otherwise participating in a unionization effort.

Potential Impacts:

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Can a union guarantee any specific improvements?

NIH fellows make up our union and will democratically prioritize which improvements to pursue in contract negotiations. With a union, fellows will negotiate as equals with the administration for the changes we want to make. A contract will legally secure those improvements against unilateral changes by the administration. Currently, the administration can change policies and benefits unilaterally, without any obligation to consult those affected.

Once our bargaining team reaches a tentative contract, we will vote on our contract. If we are unsatisfied with a contract, we can vote it down and go back to the negotiating table to work out a better agreement.

Can a union improve issues of equity and inclusion?

Forming a union is the best way to address issues with equity and inclusion in science. By having a union, we can win enforceable protections against discrimination and harassment. Without a union, policies protecting underrepresented groups still depend on the institution’s willingness to enforce them.

By unionizing, can researchers have more of an impact on science policy?

We have more power to influence science policy when we are united and organized. UAW Academic members have lobbied for increased science funding, including extensions of fellowships for early-career researchers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. UAW Academic members also took an important part in defeating the Grad Tax, which would have forced graduate students to pay taxes on their tuition waivers. They have also been active in the protection and expansion of rights for H-, F-, and J- visa holders. The more researchers form unions in their workplaces, the more political leverage we have.

Do we need a union even with a pro-science government?

First off, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Before Trump took office, a lot of scientists felt pretty good about where we were going as a society too. If we organize ourselves now, we’ll be better prepared to defend science as a profession and science-based policy next time it is under attack. Also, NIH workers have a presence in several electorally strategic swing states, like Virginia and North Carolina. We can help keep anti-science and anti-worker politicians out of office to begin with.

Why would a union make sense for a professional environment like ours?

Forming a union with your colleagues is about having a say in how your workplace is run, something that people in all jobs need. There are a lot of unions of professional workers, including researchers at many universities. In the University of California system alone, there are 11,000 unionized Postdocs, Postbacs, and staff researchers in UAW 5810, 20,000 unionized teaching assistants and student employees in UAW 2865, and 17,000 unionized student researchers in Student Researchers United-UAW.

The biggest issues with my job are bigger than any one institution. Can a union fix issues with limited jobs, limited funding, and other system problems in the scientific profession?

There are a lot of systemic issues in science that cause us to lose talented people from the profession and create a lot of distractions and frustrations for people still in it. The more scientists that are organized, the more we can have a united political voice to help address these deep systemic problems. As an example, there are already almost 10,000 unionized Postdocs in the United States out of 60k-70k total – meaning 15% of US Postdocs are in UAW – and they’ve already had an impact on policies that affect scientists. Imagine what we could accomplish if we grow that number.

Will forming a union cause NIH to reduce benefits or lower pay?

No. On the contrary, once a union is formed, NIH cannot unilaterally alter any terms and conditions of employment—including pay and benefits. Instead, changes to terms and conditions of employment are subject to collective bargaining, through which fellows have the power to negotiate with NIH management as equals and democratically approve a binding, enforceable contract.

Should I support forming a union even if I’m happy with my working conditions at the NIH?

By organizing ourselves, we can help keep things that we like and have a collective voice to push back if NIH management tries to make changes that negatively affect us. Also, even when you have a great supervisor, sometimes in a large institution the bureaucracy messes up in a way that can really hurt you. Without a union, you’re on your own, and sometimes even your well-intentioned supervisor is at a loss of how to fix the problem. With a union, you have the collective power of everyone else behind you, and your rights at work actually have teeth.

I think unions are good, but I’m here to focus on my science. Could having a union detract from the important scientific research we do?

When we have workplace problems but no power to solve them, that gets in the way of doing science. By uniting with our colleagues to form a union, we can fight together for working conditions that allow us to do our best research. This isn’t about a handful of activists singlehandedly changing things; this is about every researcher participating so none of us are alone in making positive changes in our workplaces and careers. Positive change to our workplace can’t come from just a few committed activists; it can only come from all of us researchers united together.

Will forming a union limit or damage fellows’ relationship with their PI?

As a union, fellows will be negotiating with the NIH management, not with our PIs and supervisors, because it is the policies of the NIH that define the conditions of our employment. Moreover, fellows will set the bargaining agenda and decide what improvements to prioritize in collective bargaining.

As such, a union contract would only create limitations if fellows democratically choose to impose them. And forming a union would mean that the NIH management would not be able to make unilateral changes to working conditions that fellows choose to preserve.

Will having a union mean I’m only allowed to work a certain number of hours?

Fellows will democratically decide on the terms of employment that most benefit our ability to perform research at a high level. Recent contracts negotiated by other UAW academic unions have emphasized protections against excessive workload while allowing flexibility to allow for maximal productivity. For example:

Does forming a union politicize science?

Science is already affected by politics. Federal science funding, healthcare access, immigrant rights, and other issues regularly affect our ability to do our research. By forming a union, we are able to use our collective power to influence political issues that affect us.

Are we allowed to bargain over pay as federal employees?

We can’t bargain over things that are directly decided by Congress. For some federal workers, that includes their salaries. However, our pay is set by the NIH, not by federal statute. Pay varies for fellows between and within ICs, and there are many mechanisms for setting and adjusting pay. We think NIH should bargain with us about it.

Does forming a union mean we will go on strike?

Federal employees are not permitted to strike. If we need to use our collective power to get NIH to agree to a good contract with us, there are many ways we can do that. Decisions about how to pressure NIH to agree to the improvements we want to see will be made democratically by fellows.