Columbia still offering inadequate working conditions to researchers amidst the coronavirus pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, we in the scientific and research communities at Columbia University sprang into action alongside our colleagues on the frontlines.

We volunteered our skills to process tens of thousands of blood samples from COVID-19 patients to speed up critical research. We helped develop and scale-up antibody testing. We went to hospitals to distribute scrubs when they were facing shortages, helped establish guidelines for proper PPE use, and helped the U.S. Army set up Larkin Field Hospital in Inwood. In the coming months and years, we will continue to perform crucial research to better understand the current crisis and be ready for the next one.

Two years ago, we formed a union to push back against being overworked and underpaid. Despite our expertise, we make less than our peers at other New York City institutions, and far less than postdoctoral researchers anywhere else in the country adjusting for cost of living.

Fifteen months into negotiations, Columbia University refuses to secure our existing benefits and continues to deny us commonsense protections against harassment and discrimination. It’s time for one of the country’s richest universities, with its $11 billion endowment, to acknowledge our contribution to safeguarding our city and provide us with a fair contract.

We organized not just for better pay and benefits, but because too many of us have been forced from our chosen career by persistent harassment and discrimination. In a report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, fifty-eight percent of female academic employees indicated they had experienced harassment. Rates of sexual harassment and assault are exceptionally high in academia — higher than any other sector except for the U.S. military.

Beyond that, STEM fields are notorious for underrepresentation of groups including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous academics– for example, less than two percent of STEM faculty identify as Black. Simply having a name perceived as either nonwhite or female harms your chances of being hired as a postdoc.

We organized because Columbia does not offer enough parental leave or adequate childcare support. This unfairly burdens mothers. Anyone contemplating parenthood is forced to choose between the career they worked for and the family they want. Although women earn more than half of the PhDs in this country, they are woefully underrepresented at the top — tenured appointments at research universities count 2.3 men to each woman. We won’t make the academy more equal without dismantling the systemic barriers parents face.

And we organized because even before COVID-19, our working conditions were not uniform or safe. Postdocs will be critical to restoring the University’s research operations once we reopen — but still today, we have inadequate safety assurances from the University. We want to go back to our labs. But we need a union contract with solid health and safety protections first.

We know what the problems are, and we’ve spent hours of our lives over the last year and a half offering detailed solutions to the University. We’ve proposed changes to increase equity and diversity, from making job postings public to increasing compensation so science isn’t just for the privileged. We made a lot of progress, but are still miles apart on a few core issues. For example, under current University policy, if a postdoc is abused by a supervisor, the investigation is conducted purely internally. We have convinced Columbia to submit to an external neutral arbitration process — a big win — but the University is still proposing limitations on that process and will not commit to a reasonable timeline, leaving major loopholes that can stall the process altogether. These may seem like details, but they make all the difference in creating a safe and equitable workplace.

This isn’t just about us. Because we are the first postdoc union in the U.S. to negotiate a contract with a private university, we are setting precedents that will impact academic workers for decades to come. Those of us who go into academia don’t do it for the money. We do it because we are committed to training the next generation of researchers and to pursuing knowledge that benefits society. It’s researchers who study viruses, model their spread, and develop vaccines. Like all workers, we deserve to be treated fairly, so that when we return to our labs we can focus on doing what we do best.

By Andrew Zaharia, Ph.D., Columbia University, Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and Medini K. Annavajhala, Ph.D., Columbia University, Irving Medical Center’s Division of Infectious Diseases, members of the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers Union Bargaining Committee; and Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, Ph.D., Columbia University, Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, member of the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers Union Organizing Committee and founder of Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19 (CRAC)

Logo for the Columbia University Postdoctoral Workers — United Auto Workers (CPW-UAW) union

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