As International Researchers at Columbia University we are voting Yes for our Union

Alvaro Cuesta-Dominguez, PhD, Dept. of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics; Panos Oikonomou, PhD, Dept. of Systems Biology; Subrata Chowdhury, PhD, Dept. of Genetics; Hila Milo Rasouly, PhD, Dept. of Medicine; Marta Galán-Díez, PhD, Dept. of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics; Balaji Santhanam, PhD, Dept. of Systems Biology

As international researchers, we will vote ‘yes’ for our union in the upcoming election. We care deeply about our research at Columbia University, and we work hard to push the frontiers of our specific fields. However, lack of job security, insufficient or unstable benefits, and weak systems of recourse for discrimination and harassment make us particularly vulnerable. A union would help international postdocs address these problems collectively, leaving us more able to focus on our work.

As visa holders, the stakes are high for addressing our workplace issues. If something goes wrong, the lives we have strived to build in this country can be turned upside down. Many postdoctoral researchers are on visas which are tied to the employer and come with stringent timelines to find alternative positions. Failure to follow these timelines, will force us to leave the country. As newcomers to the United States, we are not always familiar enough with the prevailing standards to negotiate sufficient benefits or a salary that matches our expertise. This is particularly important for those with spouses who are not allowed to work, and those with international fellowships, for whom many benefits at Columbia are not currently provided. Add to this the high cost and scarcity of Columbia housing, and the difficulty many international researchers face when trying to rent without a credit history. For similar employees, other institutions like NYU offer to act as a guarantor to ease the process of finding new housing. Sometimes, international postdocs even need to compromise on their yearly allocated vacations to save their jobs. All of this puts us at an enormous disadvantage when negotiating as individuals over the terms of our employment with Columbia.

Columbia affords a certain amount of assistance through the International Students and Scholars office. However, recent changes to immigration law make filing visa-related paperwork an increasingly time-sensitive affair, and while it does provide valuable resources and support, the ISSO is over-extended and often limited in the services it can offer especially when it comes to green card application support. With a union, we could negotiate to protect and expand current resources for international scholars at Columbia, which are highly desirable for timely processing of visa applications and critical for sustaining efficient research progress, both for us individually and for our labs.

Tens of thousands of academics, including postdocs, have unionized at other universities. Since postdocs at the University of California formed a union over ten years ago, the number of postdocs and the amount of research funding there has surged. Postdocs there negotiated numerous improvements that address challenges for international researchers. These include raising salaries to the highest at any public university in the US, longer minimum appointments that reduce costly and time-consuming visa re-applications, stronger systems of recourse for sexual harassment, to which visa-holders are particularly vulnerable, and increased support for international postdocs to challenge unfair terminations. Closer to home, we are proud of the efforts of the Columbia graduate workers union, which fought for and won improvements for international student workers.

While workplace improvements are critical, joining the UAW also gives us a powerful national voice on issues that affect our lives as international scientists and scholars. The volatile political climate surrounding immigration and visa availability is a concern for most of us. Through the UAW, International workers have advocated for increased access to H1B visas and green cards for researchers, and against many of the current administration’s attacks on international workers: from filing an amicus brief against President Trump’s travel ban, to organizing against new rules that would limit visas for Chinese researchers. International scholars need a strong and unified voice at this moment of crisis.

We want our postdoc experience to focus on research, we don’t want to spend our time worrying about increasing housing costs, healthcare and elusive affordable child care. Forming a union gives Postdocs and Research Scientists representation in the workplace and on the national stage, where it is especially important for those of us without the ability to vote. This will make our research community more inclusive and accessible to promising scholars and researchers, regardless of their nationality or country of origin.

By voting “union yes” on October 2nd and 3rd, we are joining over 75,000 postdocs, graduate student workers, adjunct faculty and other academic workers who are part of the UAW, including tens of thousands of international workers across the US and here in New York City. With a union, we will have the power to negotiate with Columbia and build the best workplace environment possible so that we can perform the groundbreaking research that brought us to this country in the first place.