Why we are voting union “YES” for a more family-friendly research community

Amir Momen-Roknabadi, Department of Systems Biology, Nabil Daddaoua, Department of Neuroscience, Hila Milo Rasouly, Department of Medicine, Laura Pereira, Biological Sciences, Fabian Munoz Silva, Zuckerman Institute, Zunaira Shuja, Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics , Subrata Chowdhury, Department of Genetics and Development, Reka Letso-Recinos, Department of Biological Sciences, Silvia Affo, Department of Medicine

We will be voting ‘YES’ in our upcoming union election because we care deeply about both our work and our families.

As postdoctoral researchers and Associate Research Scientists, we carry out the bulk of the cutting-edge research that makes Columbia University a world-renowned institution. We work on subjects that range from seeking cures for cancer to clean energy to new models of the universe and beyond. Many postdoctoral researchers and Associate Research Scientists are also parents. And while conducting research at Columbia is a highly rewarding experience, some challenges we currently face as parents at Columbia often make it difficult to find a healthy work-life balance.

These challenges start with giving birth. The University-provided health insurance comes with a hefty coinsurance and/or deductible, depending on the plan that is applicable. New York State law supports parents with mandated Family Leave, but beyond that, Columbia University only offers minimum paid maternity leave and no paid paternity leave. This leave is often inaccessible, since university policy is routinely not enforced. By contrast, with a binding union contract we have more power to improve and enforce these benefits.

Upon returning to work, or joining the university for the first time, researchers who are also parents need to make some very important decisions regarding child care during their working hours. In order to work full-time, we need access to full-time daycare. However, the high cost of childcare in NYC has forced many to choose between spending a significant portion of their income to remain close to work and family, or to move out of the city for more affordable childcare and instead endure a long commute. Long working hours in addition to a long commute can make it nearly impossible to find a reasonable work-life balance. A University-subsidized child care center near our places of work, as an example, would be an excellent way for the University to support the researchers whose hard work supports the University’s goals as well.

Child care costs combined with the high cost of living in NYC create a great deal of financial stress for parents who are working on their career goals while living on the income of a postdoc/ARS. The university does provide financial support in the form of the Child Care benefit for kids under the age of 5, Dependent Care Spending Accounts, and the Back-Up Care program, programs we all appreciate having. Unfortunately, only postdoctoral researchers and ARS’s are eligible for these benefits, postdoctoral fellows do not receive them, even if they had them before they received their Fellowship. For international researchers, many of our visas restrict our spouses ability to work, placing an additional financial burden on us as sole income earners. Through the use of collective bargaining, we believe we will be able to forge a more inclusive family-friendly research community at Columbia that supports all of us equally.

We are encouraged by the thousands of postdocs and graduate student researchers who have worked with their unions to negotiate improvements to critical family-friendly provisions like child care subsidies, paid family leave, affordable dependent health insurance premiums, increased access to lactation rooms, and protections against pregnancy discrimination. For example, at the University of California it was only through collective bargaining that they established fully-paid family leave for the first time. At New York University, and at the University of Connecticut, UAW graduate employees negotiated the establishment of child care subsidies that did not previously exist as benefits of employment.

We are also encouraged by the progress graduate student workers have made right here at Columbia, despite the administration’s refusal thus far to bargain with their union. For example, in advance of the graduate workers’ strike vote last year, Columbia offered for the first time to pay 100% of dependent premiums for funded PhD students, which previously cost $4,116 per dependent.

Postdocs on our campuses have made some recent progress on family issues thanks to the great work of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) and Columbia University Postdoctoral Society (CUPS). However, not only do we believe Columbia is capable of greater improvements in this area, but we are also worried that these new benefits could be taken away without any recourse, and are disappointed that almost all of these benefits do not apply to postdoctoral fellows. The organized power of a union can help us to achieve a workable and reasonable agreement with the administrators in charge of resource allocation at this institution and secure those gains via a legally binding contract.

Interestingly, the University has announced this week that it would increase our child care subsidies by $1000 per year. While we appreciate this increase, it is an amount that for most postdocs would only cover a fraction of the year’s costs of daycare, and is a small step forward for parents who struggle daily to balance their responsibilities to their family with their passion for their work in a highly productive research setting, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It is also somewhat questionable that the University announced this improvement during the same week that they have gone to great lengths to discourage us from voting in favor of unionization, as our historic National Labor Relations Board election date draws near. The announcement of this improvement came via Executive Vice President G. Michael Purdy’s website aimed at discouraging support for unionization, where he offers this increase in the childcare benefit, while ignoring the larger concerns that could be addressed by the university in a way that would have far broader beneficial impact on researchers with families.

With the support of the UAW, the representatives we would elect from within our ranks would bargain as equals with the administration over priorities we determine democratically; issues including childcare subsidies, protections around pregnancy discrimination, parental leave and dependent coverage. Once agreements on these issues are reached with the University, they would be secured in a legally binding contract. If the University were to fail to implement such agreed-upon provisions, we would have a fair system of recourse to enforce what was agreed upon.

Collective bargaining already works for thousands of other postdocs at the University of California, University of Massachusetts, Rutgers, UConn Health Center, and elsewhere. It can work for us as well. We can utilize this system to negotiate family-friendly improvements that will help make the research community more accessible and inclusive and support Columbia in recruiting and retaining the most promising scholars and researchers, regardless of gender or family status.