Biotech workers launch first unionization drive in the industry

Research and technical workers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard went public with their unionization efforts on June 12 after organizing for the past eight months. Over 500 workers will be included in this newly formed union of early- and intermediate-career workers affiliated with the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America. This milestone represents the first unionization effort among professional workers in the biotech industry.

A familiar structure adjacent to MIT’s campus, the Broad Institute is a biomedical and genomics research center established in 2004 with an endowment of over $1.4 billion. Over the years, it has emerged as a leading institution in the ballooning global biotech industry, estimated to be worth over $859 billion in 2022.

Despite the institution’s prestige and wealth, the workers at the Broad consistently endure unstandardized pay levels, where employees with the same job description are paid different amounts, while also facing abrupt layoffs and excessive workloads.

Workers are left empty-handed amidst billions of dollars

Michael Glass, a Research Associate at the Broad, has not been promoted from his current position as RA I for over two years, even though he regularly takes on the responsibilities of an RA II and III. Coming from a low-income family, he saw the position at the Broad as an opportunity to save up for medical school. However, he has found himself “losing money every year [he’s] lived here,” even taking on a second job as a teaching assistant at Harvard to make ends meet.

“This job at the Broad for me and my family was a huge deal,” he said, “But despite the prestige and reputation of the Broad I realized I was living the same way I was before this job…I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to step up in society at all.”

This experience is not uncommon. Kristen Doucette, who now works for another biotech company in the Boston area, recounts working consistently long hours during her four-year tenure at the Broad Institute. “People see it as a badge of honor in academia to work over 60 hours a week and go in on the weekends,” she explains. Often, this leads to a high turnover rate, with workers staying for only 2-3 years.

According to a climate survey released by the Broad Institute, one in seven workers at the institute has reported experiencing harassment or discrimination or witnessing it happening to a colleague. Individuals from marginalized communities, including Black, LGBTQ and disabled individuals, also have reportedly worse experiences working at the Broad.

However, despite these concerns regarding harassment, Eric Lander was rehired by the Broad Institute, disregarding the fact that he had resigned from his position as presidential science advisor following a White House investigation that confirmed a pattern of bullying and demeaning his staff.

Biotech workers are not disposable

Anxieties surrounding job security and a lack of transparency persist among workers, particularly following the unexpected layoff of approximately a dozen workers in the Center for the Development of Therapeutics in the spring of 2022.

During a meeting announcing the layoffs, workers were informed that the reduction in the workforce would create a “more nimble and smarter” environment. However, individuals like Lisa Miller, a research associate at CDoT, were left to wonder “Why are we discussing the potential benefits of the layoffs when there are people in the same room who have just lost their livelihoods?”

Miller witnessed the tumultuous aftermath of the layoffs and the subsequent mass exodus of overwhelmed research associates grappling with the increased workload. The onus of addressing low morale among the workers largely fell on the managers, yet Miller pointed out, “If you’re good at science you get to be in charge of other people but you never have to work on your people management skills. That’s a huge gap and it’s hurting both parties.” 

Collective action and power

On the first day of going public, 40% of the bargaining unit signed union authorization cards, indicating broad support for the union. “People have been wanting this change for a long time,” says Doucette. “The way things are happening right now is only helping the people on the top.”

Within academia, power dynamics often prevail, leading individuals to fear challenging the status quo. As Miller highlights, “A lot of science does depend on one letter of recommendation from your PI [primary investigator] or manager.” 

However, there is an intense desire for change, especially within the biotech industry, which has never experienced unionization before. Glass draws inspiration from the ongoing contract negotiations of the MIT Graduate Student Union on the same campus, stating, “We want to show people that it’s possible in the biotech industry as well, just as it was for graduate students.”

“I am so excited for the opportunity to get a seat at the table and no longer have to deal with lip service,” expresses Doucette, “[The administration] knows we’re the backbone of the Broad. We’re the ones doing the work…Unless we come together as workers, things probably won’t change.”

Related Articles

Back to top button