We’re Voting for the Union at Columbia University Medical Center

Lyuda Kovalchuke, Conor Dempsey, Lale Alpar, Amy Jobe, Justin Steinfeld, Macayla Donegan, Changyu Zhu, Frances Forrester, Jamie Yang, Benjamin van Soldt, Kyle Kaniecki, Filip Cvetkovski

Administrators at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have worked diligently to convince graduate researchers that we do not need a union. After reviewing our own experiences, as well as relevant facts from other universities with unions, we have decided to vote yes on December 7th and 8th.

We feel confident that graduate students, as well as the university overall, would benefit from unionization. We also believe administrators have failed to make a compelling case against unionization, offering speculative arguments and “concerns” that lack any empirical basis and ignoring the successful track record of unions at university campuses across the United States

Here’s why we’re voting yes.

The union has already helped us, and could further enhance our ability to focus on research.

For some of us, the union has already helped tackle real-life problems in the lab. While administrators have claimed unions increase bureaucracy, our experience shows that a union can actually enable us to cut through Columbia’s existing mountains of red tape. Those of us who work in the Black Building have spent years individually, and unsuccessfully, trying to get administrators and various University departments to address deteriorating lab facilities that both get in the way of our research and threaten our health and safety. Working with the union, however, a group of us obtained over 60 signatures on a petition that finally led to a response from Dean Goldman, including a scheduled meeting among PIs and Associate Dean Palmer around these issues. This is significantly farther than any of us, including our PIs, had managed to get previously.

We should not have to spend our time on these types of efforts. Neither should our PIs. With a union contract, we could have a real grievance procedure enabling us to address problems like this more quickly and effectively, like RAs and TAs at the University of Washington, and spend more time on research. We would happily pay union dues for this kind of effective process.

We could negotiate economic gains for ourselves that also make Columbia more competitive

On his website against the union, Provost Coatsworth says Columbia is “competing for and committed to attracting the very best students in the world,” implying that the market for academic competition automatically ensures Columbia will provide top economic packages. NYU, however, where the graduate union has been organizing and bargaining for 18 years, offers significantly higher pay than Columbia does for the same amount of work. Unlike Columbia, NYU acknowledged in a joint statement with the union in 2013 that collective bargaining can “improve the graduate student experience” and “sustain and enhance NYU’s academic competitiveness.”

Because NYU pays extra for teaching (ranging from $5,376 to more than $18,000 per course), a Biology PhD student there will earn an additional $8,332.88 for teaching one class in spring 2017, bringing her total compensation this year, including the $37,098 stipend, to $45,430.88, more than 25% higher than the $36,300 currently earned by a Columbia Biology student (or 21% higher than the $37,500 for a typical CUMC biomedical PhD) doing the same work. While not every graduate student at CUMC will teach, the bottom line is that, for the same amount of work, graduate workers at unionized NYU make significantly more than at Columbia.

A union can help pursue gender equity in the academy

Unions have effectively addressed many of the barriers that, according to numerous studies, women scientists face in completing graduate school and entering the academic workforce. While Columbia has made some progress on a number of these issues, such as enhancing child care subsidies and maternity leave, more work remains on issues like sexual harassment and the significant costs of insuring children.

While survey results vary slightly, large numbers of women say they experience sexual harassment during their graduate programs. Strong contractual protections against sexual harassment, combined with a fair grievance procedure, can enhance women’s ability to take on this problem. At a recent GWC-UAW forum on these issues, a CUMC researcher discussed the ineffectiveness of existing avenues of recourse at Columbia, and a UConn Biology graduate student discussed how their union grievance procedure has already enabled some women scientists to successfully address sexual harassment.

CUMC graduate students have also pointed out the challenges of paying the high cost of insuring dependent children. The $8,232 per year to insure two children this year represents well over 20% of our stipend. At NYU, by contrast, where the union negotiated a 75% subsidy for dependent premiums, it would cost a little over 4% of a Biology PhD’s total compensation when teaching one course ($1,996 for 2 children on NYU GSHIP after the 75% subsidy). These improvements make a real difference in people’s lives and can make it easier for parents to survive and flourish in academia.

Experiences at other universities refute the University’s “concerns” about unionization

University administrators make several claims intended to persuade us to vote no, focusing on three unsubstantiated fears: a small minority will force science RAs to strike or face penalties; we will lose financially by being “forced” to pay dues; and unionization will damage faculty-graduate student relationships. The evidence refutes administrators’ concerns.

The union does not happen to us. We are the union, as UAW academic workers’ experiences show.

The university wants us to believe that by voting yes, we would be giving control over our lives to the union when in fact we are the union. The reality is academic workers in the UAW have exercised robust democratic participation in fundamental decisions like if, when, and how to strike or when to accept the results of bargaining and when to start (or continue) paying membership dues.

Recent UAW academic strike votes have had majority support and led to fair contracts without striking.

At a recent CUMC town hall, administrators raised concerns that a small minority of graduate students could force us to strike or be penalized. Yet, when asked, they did not produce a single example of this scenario happening at other schools — because these examples do not exist.

The facts show that in the three most recent UAW academic bargaining campaigns where the right to strike exists, RAs and TAs at NYU and UW and postdocs at UC, a majority of all employees voted democratically — and by 90% or higher margins — to authorize their bargaining committees to call a strike if necessary. These votes recognize the possibility of a strike as an important source of power in collective bargaining. But these examples also show that it is only one tactic and a last resort we would use only if the University was being unreasonable — in all three cases, the bargaining committees reached agreement without an actual strike. Lastly, in the rare cases in which strikes might happen, participation would be an individual choice and the UAW would not penalize those who choose not to participate.

Recent UAW academic contract ratification votes show clear satisfaction with the results of bargaining.

As we do not pay membership dues until we vote to ratify our first contract, the only reliable measure of whether the results of bargaining have been “worthwhile” to academics at other schools is ratification results. UAW ratification votes since 2015 are highly encouraging, with a majority of all eligible workers voting to ratify their contracts with margins of 98% or more.

Unionization can enhance academic relationships.

Contrary to the university’s claims, in more than four decades of experience, no one–including Columbia’s own expert witness in the NLRB hearings–has reported that collective bargaining has damaged advisor-advisee relationships. As our Engineering colleagues pointed out in the Spectator, existing studies show that many graduate students at unionized universities actually reported having better relationships with their faculty advisors. Moreover, the union also enables us to work on projects — such as the work on lab conditions in the Black Building or the union’s STEM research funding campaign last year — that are of mutual interest to graduate students and our PIs.

If tens of thousands of RAs and TAs and postdocs at these schools with UAW-affiliated grad unions have successfully negotiated improvements, benefits, rights, and protections — improvements that a majority find valuable, and which do not have a negative effect on our relationships with our advisors — we are confident we at Columbia can do the same.

We hope our colleagues join us in voting yes.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Lyuda Kovalchuke (Biological Sciences)

Conor Dempsey (Neuroscience and Behavior)

Lale Alpar (Biological Sciences)

Amy Jobe (Biological Sciences)

Justin Steinfeld (Integrated, MD/PhD Program)

Macayla Donegan (Neuroscience and Behavior)

Changyu Zhu (Nutritional and Metabolic Biology)

Frances Forrester (Physiology and Cellular Biophysics)

Jamie Yang (Integrated Program)

Benjamin van Soldt (Genetics and Development)

Kyle Kaniecki (Genetics and Development)

Filip Cvetkovski (Microbiology and Immunology)