NIH Scientists Want a Union

NIH Scientists Want a Union

Faced with an organizing campaign by the United Auto Workers, the Biden administration is claiming that fellows at the National Institutes of Health—the people who do most of the actual research—aren’t actually federal employees.

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Matt Manion recalls the countless “closed-door meetings” conducted with the door wide open so the whole lab could hear their boss berate her workers, tell them that they’re not good enough, that her word alone can dictate their entire career.

“Always looming was the not-so-thinly veiled threat that you need to cooperate or else,” said Manion about his time as a predoctoral fellow with the National Institutes of Health. “Our future was entirely dependent on her giving us positive recommendations.”

He was able to change labs and work under a different principal investigator, or PI, to conclude his studies on cellular and molecular neurodevelopment. But only after months of conflict and resolution meetings, which Manion said took a toll on his mental health.

Now, Manion is a postdoc at the NIH, where nearly 5,000 fellows are unionizing with the United Auto Workers for better compensation and stronger benefits, protection from workplace harassment, support for international workers, and increased funding. If successful, this would be the largest federal union drive in 12 years—in a sector that saw a 20 percent membership increase from 2021 to 2022.

More than a quarter of NIH workers are fellows, providing the foundation for much of the findings of the largest public funder of biomedical and behavioral research in the world.

The Fellows United campaign submitted union authorization cards to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)—the agency that governs relations between the federal government and its employees—on June 1. Organizers have spent the two months since then waiting for an election date, but will have to wait even longer now that the NIH has rejected the workers’ right to unionize and collectively bargain.

After being granted a one-month extension by the FLRA, the NIH has officially challenged the campaign’s filing by denying that fellows are employees, stating: “The Agency is of the view that individuals in all categories…are not employees under the Statute.” The NIH did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Some workers anticipated that the extension request would lead to such a challenge, and now fear that the NIH’s response could result in a drawn-out legal battle. But instead of tamping down enthusiasm, fellows say, they are reinvigorated. “We are fired up,” said Emilya Ventriglia, a fellow at the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “This gives us more time to organize. I’m talking to more workers than ever, and they’re pretty upset to hear the NIH doesn’t consider us employees.”

Michael Duff, a law professor at St. Louis University, who used to practice labor arbitration in the federal sector, said he has “not been frequently involved in vigorous legal proceedings on the federal side because there’s usually just not the same kind of acrimony with respect to bargaining” as in the private sector.

This is in part because of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which banned federal employees from collectively bargaining over pay or benefits and made strikes and slowdowns illegal. Because of such restrictions, says Duff, “you tend not to get the same kind of resistance.”

While there are limits to what can be achieved at the bargaining table around salaries, there is nothing preventing workers from raising awareness about the difficulties that come with salary levels below the living wage in their city—or from pointing out that wages haven’t kept up with cost of living. Workers are also using the campaign to highlight the contradictions exposed by the NIH using their status as trainees to justify their low earnings.

“There is this idea that because we are trainees we deserve low wages, but that isn’t livable for a lot of us,” says Ventriglia. “Some fellows are below the poverty line. We don’t get benefits, inadequate time off for parental leave. We are raising our voices and being told it’s whining, but we’re essential and need to be treated as such.”

Ventriglia rejects the notion that their work is just training, and therefore undeserving of livable wages: “Who is doing the research? It’s always the trainees, the workers,” she told The Nation. “Supervisors will instruct you, guide you, give you inspiration, but at the end of the day you’re producing the work. A lot of times, this has been used as an excuse to give less-than-livable wages, but at the end of the day, it’s work like anywhere else.”

IFPTE Local 98 President Chris Dols, who represents federal workers at the Army Corps of Engineers, says this culture of excessive workloads, low pay, and toxic working environments is all too common for scientists in early career positions, but that a union at the NIH could raise expectations. “It offers workers some recourse to confront the issues so endemic in our field,” explained Dols. “If successful, not just in the drive but in enforcing good working conditions through bargaining, fellows can change that experience for scientists across the board.”

Academic workers, particularly those in STEM, have historically found it difficult to organize, but that’s changing as discontent grows across the field. The NIH fellows—who often come from top universities and go on to top labs—are a part of that change. “The hope is this will help shift how scientists begin to understand themselves as a collective—as workers instead of atomized individuals,” said Travis Kinder, a research fellow at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Beyond the spread of labor militancy, the potential material effects on academic workers outside of the NIH should not be understated. There is an industry-wide understanding, according to workers, that most university labs use the NIH as a benchmark in setting their own pay scales, so higher wages there could become the standard throughout the field.

Several fellows involved in the campaign credit their past union experience at university as part of why they are trying to organize the fellowship, and say they plan to do the same in the labs they graduate to. “I came from a unionized graduate program,” said Marjorie Levinstein, who is the longest-standing member of the campaign organizing committee. “I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of being unionized—better benefits such as retirement matching, stronger protections against sexual harassment and discrimination—things that every workplace should offer.”

Fellows at the NIH suggest that they have already seen the positive impact organizing can have.

After the union went public, the NIH announced stipend increases to be implemented over the next two years. But the raises have not been uniformly administered, with some departments applying the funds immediately while others only plan to do so two years from now. Workers say the opaque process is an example of why this peculiarly timed gesture of good faith doesn’t negate the case for a union but strengthens it.

“It all happened behind closed doors, without the fellows’ input,” explained Michaela Yamine, a fellow at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “We got an e-mail from the agency administration saying that by October 2024, all of the institutes and centers are going to increase their stipends at their own discretion.”

Like many companies or agencies today, the NIH has also turned to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to address issues of discrimination and promote diversity. Workers say the program, UNITE, is well-intentioned—but were quick to point out the hypocrisy of such efforts without fair compensation, effective harassment protections, and worker representation. “In 2021 when [UNITE] was established, I was struggling to afford adequate housing on my NIH salary,” said Yamine, who is based in Bethesda, Md., where the NIH is headquartered. “It really upset me because it’s inconsistent to state that you want to increase diversity and equity in science without fairly compensating your workers.”

A unionized NIH could not only bring improved benefits and new protections to address rampant workplace abuse, affording fellows like Manion the ability to confront abusive bosses without jeopardizing their careers, but might also begin to transform the work itself.

“A lot of our demands are NIH-specific—salary, retirement funds, etc.—but the natural extension of this campaign could…affect the way science works as a discipline and allow fellows…to produce good science without fear of not being able to survive,” says Vishaka Gopalan, a visiting fellow at the National Cancer Institute. “The trend of academic workers unionizing is upending this current order of appointments and hyper-competition that harms the field; we seek to replace that with solidarity, which will only produce better science.”

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