NIH Fellows Win Recognition as Workers With the Right to Join a Union

NIH Fellows Win Recognition as Workers With the Right to Join a Union

NIH Fellows Win Recognition as Workers With the Right to Join a Union

One day after a Nation story reported claims that National Institute Fellows were “trainees” not “workers,” the NIH changed its mind.


On Wednesday, August 9, nearly 5,000 fellows at the National Institutes of Health were informed that the agency has accepted their petition to hold an election to affiliate with the United Auto Workers (UAW).

“Holy shit! We did it. We have power,” said Tara Fischer, a research fellow at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “You feel powerless as an individual, and I think we’ve all felt like that at some point to varying degrees during our careers. This is the first time I’ve felt like we can change things.”

Last Tuesday, The Nation published a story detailing the campaign organized by NIH Fellows United—and the agency’s attempt to block their filing by arguing that the “individuals in all categories…are not employees under the Statute” but instead are merely “trainees.”

“There is this idea that because we are trainees we deserve low wages, but that isn’t livable for a lot of us,” said Emilya Ventriglia, a fellow at the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “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.”

In an e-mail to The Nation, the NIH said:

NIH issued its position to the [Federal Labor Relations Authority] which requested a hearing to determine the eligibility of some of those individuals.

After additional consultation with HHS, NIH withdrew its statement of position and request for a hearing on the petition filed by UAW, on behalf of NIH Fellows United, to represent fellows at the NIH. NIH has accepted the petition to include all individuals described.

The NIH and UAW will now work toward setting a date with the FLRA for the Iinstitutes’ fellows to vote on whether to unionize. If successful, this would be the largest federal union drive in 12 years. It also marks the UAW’s first foray into the sector.

Marjorie Levinstein, a fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the longest-sitting member of the campaign’s organizing committee, said the nascent worker leadership group decided to partner with the union because of familiarity. She and another postdoc involved in the early organizing stages had both come from campuses organized by the UAW.

“So the debate was,” Levinstein explained, “should we go with the union we have had positive experiences with, but hasn’t worked with in this sector? Or one of the unions that knows the ins and outs of the federal government more, but is maybe less familiar with organizing academic workers?”

Indeed, the UAW has long held a presence in higher education. The union represents more than 80,000 workers at Columbia, Harvard, the University of California campuses, and elsewhere.

The NIH is not immune from the concerns over excessive workloads, inadequate pay, and abuse that are so pervasive in academia. The Institutes’ fellows believe a union will help them to address those material issues, and do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental nature of science.

“Doing science at NIH has been the most amazing part of my career, despite what sometimes feels like a push [from management] to keep me and my coworkers isolated in our labs,” said Fischer, who studies basic cell and molecular biology. “That isolation runs counter to the ethos of what we do as scientists, which is done best as a communal venture. In that same way, we are best able to advocate for ourselves collectively in a union.”

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