Postdoctoral associations may be needed in many places (Nature 455, 425–428; 2008). However, postdocs in the United Kingdom already have the protection of trade unions, if they choose to join.
The unions are formally recognized by employers and negotiate for their members in areas such as pay, conditions, health and safety. Also, if an employer proposes a major change (such as a merger or department closure), trade unions will offer critical comment not just on the fate of their members but on how science — at the location, nationally and internationally — will be affected. In addition, the unions have considerable resources available with which they can provide advice and legal representation in employment disputes. For example, they recently won a 13% pay award for UK university academics, including postdocs.
I concede that postdoctoral voices struggle to be heard in unions. An association spanning different unions would be welcome, with useful roles in areas such as postdoc concerns, holding meetings and producing white papers of best practices or policy recommendations.
Being a trade unionist has empowered me. I am at the heart of negotiations, in my case within the UK Medical Research Council. For example, my institute is soon to be merged into the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, and I gave evidence at the recent review on the impact of the new institute. I was talking about science, but I was invited because of my union. If I am made redundant in the merger, I will get legal support to negotiate my redundancy terms. My colleagues who aren't members will not.