Fellows Vote to Unionize
NIH Fellows United Becomes First-ever Trainee Union in a Government Agency
BY JENNIFER HARKER, THE NIH CATALYST
Some 5,375 early-career NIH researchers have formed a union. The vote to establish the NIH Fellows United-UAW union was certified by the U.S. Federal Labor Relations Authority in December. Of the approximately 1,700 NIH fellows who voted, 97.8% voted in favor of the union.
This is the first union of its kind in the U.S. federal government. The NIH Fellows United-UAW union will cover, to varying degrees, postbaccalaureate, predoctoral, postdoctoral, research, and clinical fellows working at NIH.
“Thousands of fellows came together to vote for our union, and we will continue to work together as we prepare to bargain for fair and equitable working conditions,” said Dustin Mullaney, a postbaccalaureate fellow at NINDS, in an NIH Fellows United press release shared with the Catalyst.
A statement from the NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison noted, “NIH appreciates the democratic process that unfolded with the recent vote, and we respect the decision made by the employees to form a union. NIH will engage in meaningful discussions with union representatives to better understand their members’ needs and aspirations.”
The union vote took place in person on Dec. 6 for fellows working in Bethesda, Rockville, and Baltimore. Fellows at satellite NIH sites began voting by mail in November.
Marjorie Levinstein, an IRTA postdoctoral fellow in the Biobehavioral Imaging and Molecular Neuropsychopharmacology Laboratory at NIDA, said the NIH Fellows United initiative began in July 2021. Levinstein said she and another NIH postdoc hosted the first interest meeting, as both had previously attended universities when graduate students and postdoctoral fellows unionized through UAW.
“This effort was completely fellow driven,” Levinstein said. “I was ecstatic at how 97.8% voted in favor of the union, which is a clear indication of how much fellows want to be able to have a say in their terms of employment.”
Fellows can choose whether or not they wish to join the union; however, regardless of whether they do so, they will be included in the bargaining unit represented by the NIH Fellows United-UAW, according to Levinstein.
A survey will be sent to all NIH fellows to gauge interest in their priorities for bargaining. Then, NIH and the union will negotiate terms. A bargaining committee elected by the union will be established to represent the fellows throughout the negotiation process.
Levinstein noted that the following topics, commonly brought up by fellows as areas for improvement, are likely to be included in new contract negotiations between NIH and the newly formed NIH Fellows United-UAW union:
- Pay: The union plans to advocate for fair pay across all Institutes and Centers (ICs) at each trainee or fellow level. Levinstein recognized NIH’s recent approval and rollout efforts toward standardizing pay across ICs but noted that rollout has been inconsistent. They hope to codify the standardized pay agreement across NIH ICs.
- Benefits: Consistent childcare and retirement benefits are likely to be included on the list of benefit requests.
- Added support: The union hopes to negotiate and establish a formal grievance process with third-party arbitration.
- International fellows’ visas: International fellows must renew visas every year. Levinstein said this causes added stress because international fellows must take time away from work to return to their home country to renew the visa each year. The union hopes to extend this time interval for longer than one year to decrease the strain.
“We hope to have our contract finalized by this summer,” said Levinstein, adding that fellows will not be charged dues until the first contract is ratified.
Trainings will be provided for NIH managers beginning in January, according to Beth Chandler, deputy director, NIH Office of Human Resources. A 30-minute training offered by HHS is available for managers who would like to brush up on the high-level points of Labor Relations 101, she said.
Answers to frequently asked questions about the NIH Fellows United-UAW union, including how union contract bargaining might work for short-term fellows (2-3 years of employment), are available at https://www.nihfellowsunited.org/faq/.
The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education, accessible at https://www.training.nih.gov/, offers a repository of resources and contacts for NIH fellows, as well as professional trainings, wellness events, and job listings.
This page was last updated on Friday, January 5, 2024