Postdoctoral life in university laboratories has reached a crisis point. Major scientific publications continue to draw attention to the alarming state of postdoctoral life in university laboratories across the country, including a recent Nature editorial highlighting severe exploitation of international postdocs by senior scientists. Beginning three years ago, postdocs and associate research scientists at Columbia banded together and voted by an overwhelming 68% in October to form the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW (CPW-UAW) union. A week ago, Columbia finally made an offer to sit down at the bargaining table.
After a unanimous endorsement from the CPW-UAW bargaining committee, postdoctoral researchers voted 95% yes to ratify the proposed framework. This vote represents a momentous step forward as it will enable us to negotiate for concrete workplace protections and improvements to pay and benefits and establish a more just workplace for postdoctoral researchers and associate research scientists at Columbia.
As our vote to form CPW-UAW made clear in October, we have immediate problems that we need to address at the bargaining table: salaries that do not reflect the outrageous cost of living in New York City; inadequate and uneven health and mental health benefits; precarious rights for international scholars; unequal or no retirement benefits; skyrocketing costs of childcare and dependent health insurance; and lack of recourse for grievances in a tenuous system where our faculty supervisors have full power over both our economic and academic lives.
The proposal includes a timeline for both CPW and the graduate workers of Columbia (GWC) to be immediately recognized by the university, and to begin bargaining no later than February 2019. The framework has generated significant debate not only on Columbia’s campus but across the country. The concerns raised by those who advocated for graduate employees to vote “no” were not nearly as widespread in the postdoctoral community — likely due to our major differences as units and in our histories on campus. Our assessment of the proposal led to our unanimous endorsement as the CPW bargaining committee.
While we do not expect the administration to suddenly act perfectly, Columbia’s proposed bargaining framework represents a major, historic change of course. Columbia would agree to recognize and bargain with GWC-UAW after more than 17 years of opposing the rights of graduate workers to unionize. By recognizing CPW-UAW, and dropping the legal case against postdoc unionization at the NLRB, we not only get to bargain after three years of organizing but also help set a standard for private university postdocs elsewhere who want to unionize. All of this in exchange for an agreement that we will not strike for a period of time that it would likely take to negotiate a good first contract anyway, with a built-in strike deadline, is overall a productive framework.
We are not naïve and know that the framework itself will not deliver a fair contract to postdocs and associate research scientists or to graduate workers. We will have to devote significant time to bargaining and building a campaign that will convince Columbia to agree to fair provisions. And we know that this process could necessitate taking a strike vote and preparing for a possible strike to win a fair contract. But this is one of those moments where we have to recognize the major victory in the ratification of this proposal and build on the momentum of our success so far to build a strong contract campaign.
We salute our graduate worker colleagues for their tremendously successful grassroots organizing over the last few years, including moving toward a second strike on campus. The overwhelming vote of postdocs and associate research scientists to unionize is an integral part of an equation that builds on and strengthens our collective hand as teachers and researchers at Columbia. As a recently formed unit, riding this growing wave offers our clearest path forward toward what we voted for in October — a fair union contract that makes our lives better and makes Columbia a stronger research community.
Solidarity and collective power within a unit take time to build — and solidarity across units will inevitably take much longer. The democratic decisions of CPW and GWC regarding the proposed framework were independent, but each unit has come to the conclusion that this bargaining framework will move them most effectively toward a fair contract.
With both units voting yes on the framework agreement, we have the chance to build on not one but two successful unionization campaigns with upwards of 5,000 workers on a single campus. We have the chance to negotiate with Columbia for not one but two academic contracts representing distinct units with significant parallels. And, if the university fails to bargain in good faith and agree to a fair contract, we have the chance to use our collective power to affect essentially all research activities on campus.
Medini Annavajhala, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Medicine — Infectious Diseases
Steven Cook, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biological Sciences
Melissa McKenzie, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Pathology and Cell Biology
Hila Milo Rasouly, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Medicine — Nephrology
Tulsi Patel, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Pathology and Cell Biology
Andrew Zaharia, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute
Ignacio Hernandez-Morato, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
Sonny Harman, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics
The authors are all postdoctoral researchers and associate research scientists at Columbia University, and are members of the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers (CPW-UAW) bargaining committee.