Scientists are Workers, Too

The UCS's Staff Has Unionized. Who's Next?

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In 1939, the British crystallographer J. D. Bernal published a remarkable book, The Social Function of Science. With its thorough accounting of scientific institutions, research salaries, career trajectories, educational systems, and national priorities, the book is a landmark publication in the sociology of science. At the time, though, Bernal’s book sparked a dramatic public controversy. Bernal, a Marxist and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, premised his book on the idea that the scientific process was intimately tied to social and economic conditions. He relentlessly pointed out how capitalism shaped the production of knowledge in the United States.

In Freedom’s Laboratory, I discuss how Bernal’s insistence that science takes place in the context of power contributed to a larger, midcentury debate about “Western science” vs. “Marxist science.” But today, I want to reflect on a very specific part of Bernal’s analysis that especially rankled scientists: His insistence that scientists were “workers.”

Most practicing scientists, both now and in 1939, earn some sort of compensation from others (a university, a company, a government agency) for the tasks we think of as “science.” In this sense, calling scientists “workers” seems a simple and obvious statement of fact. What, then, was so inflammatory about calling scientists “workers”?

Part of the answer has to do with the rhetoric of anti-Communism, which by the 1930s treated anything associated with “workers” as unacceptably red (think International Workers of the World, or, later, the World Federation of Scientific Workers). The longer—and, in my opinion, more interesting—answer involves the idea of science as a quest for truth unsullied by material interests…like a salary.

In his classic 1994 book, A Social History of Truth, historian of science Steven Shapin argued that this way of thinking about science in the West emerged from the need to establish trust at a distance during the Scientific Revolution. This conception of science required experiments, but only a few people could witness a given experiment at a time—hence the need for other markers of credibility. In the context of seventeenth-century England, the most “trustworthy” person turned out to be the “gentleman.” As Shapin put it, “He was accounted to be such a man as had no inducement to misrepresent the case, no forces working on him that would shift his utterances out of correspondence with reality.” A gentleman, in other words, couldn’t be bought.

The idea that there’s something uncouth, something unseemly about earning money in exchange for scientific research has had surprising staying power in the West, even as (in reality) most scientists work for a living. It’s an idea that has had enormous consequences, both in terms of who “gets” to do science and working conditions for those who get through the door. It’s a mindset that allows, for instance, the leadership of private universities to proclaim with a straight face that grad student unionization would “fundamentally alter” the nature of graduate training. After all, as the provost of the University of Chicago put it, graduate students “come to the University to study, to learn, …and to make original contributions in their chosen fields of knowledge.” Knowledge, apparently, is its own reward.

On Monday, the staff of the Union of Concerned Scientists rejected this logic and voted by a supermajority to join the Progressive Workers Union (PWU), which also represents the staff of Greenpeace USA, Sierra Club, and 350.org. The UCS’s unionization effort has come on the heels of the very public resignation of a Black employee who has urged the organization to do better, to live out the values that it supposedly espouses, particularly when it comes to protecting the interests of its most vulnerable staff.

Not all UCS employees are scientists, but some of them are. More to the point, the organization is the most prominent group in the United States that attempts to mobilize scientists on political issues, ranging from climate equity and disarmament to the relationship between science and democracy. This is what makes the employees’ decision to unionize so symbolic: The UCS came into existence in 1969 precisely because faculty at MIT wanted to protest the Vietnam War (a political act), but deemed a student-led work stoppage as “too radical.” The UCS’s founding members wanted to enact their power as scientists, but not as workers. The radical students would strike; the faculty would host a teach-in.

Writing in 1970, Murray Eden, one of the organizers of the March 4, 1969 events at MIT, reflected on the faculty’s animosity to anything resembling a strike:

It is clear that the call for scientists to stop their research activities for a day evoked strong emotions. Most scientists regard the conduct of research as distinct in kind from most other occupations. To many, it is a way of life rather than a way to earn a living. The business of research goes on as much in the brain as it does in the laboratory and is rarely a nine-to-five activity.

Notice how this original wording attempts to set scientists as somehow both part of, and apart, from the sorts of politics that “regular workers” might engage in? Can you imagine how a vote on faculty unionization might have gone in that climate? Can you imagine how much more power those Vietnam-era scientists might have had, had they embraced their solidarity with other kinds of workers? And fifty years later, can you imagine how the clusterfuck of fall campus reopenings might have gone differently if the country’s faculty and staff—scientific or not, permanent or not—were consistently unionized?

At long last, scientists—and their advocates—are beginning to get it. The UCS’s vote is really, really exciting, and I hope UCS United succeeds in its goal of using its power “to transform UCS into an institution that promotes justice, inside and out.” Scientists are workers, and workers have power. Seize it, and use it.

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More on the UCS: If you’d like to know more about how the UCS’s politics have changed since 1970 (fairly dramatically!), check out MIT Press’s 2019 reprint of speeches and discussion from the March 4, 1969 teach-in. (And see my reflection on it in Science.)

Audra IRL, or as close to IRL as we get these days: Back in March, just as everything was shutting down for COVID, I was supposed to give a talk at the American Philosophical Society. A virtual version of the event has now been rescheduled for Wednesday, September 16, at 1 p.m. Stay turned for registration information via the APS’s virtual events page!