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In the midst of a labor landscape where workers’ voices are rising and their demands for fair treatment growing louder, employees are uniting in solidarity to confront employers who have long ignored their struggles. From Hollywood to Detroit, from delivery drivers to teachers, doctors and nurses, the battle of equitable working conditions has taken center stage.
And right here at two of New York’s most prestigious academic institutions, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University, there’s a story that mirrors this fight for justice. As the United Auto Workers (UAW) are on strike against the “Big Three” automakers, we stand in solidarity and are on the verge of a strike ourselves.
Here in New York City, beneath the city’s glamor lies a reality that many of its residents know all too well: the daunting challenges of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The exorbitant rent prices can make even a modest apartment feel like a luxury. Luxuries like an evening out or even a gym membership can feel out of reach. These struggles are experienced daily by postdoctoral researchers at our institutions.
As postdocs, we have advanced degrees (typically a PhD or professional equivalent) and work on short-term contracts. We make significant contributions to science and human knowledge in the universities where we work: we run studies, teach and train students, and write grants and publications. However, the nature of the position has led to systemic inequities including low pay, limited benefits like retirement and childcare, and the lack of adequate workplace protections.
For postdoctoral workers, navigating the city’s challenges requires resilience, resourcefulness and, oftentimes, a deep commitment to the pursuit of one’s dreams. And ultimately, the dream is what keeps postdocs in academia, despite the lack of appropriate working conditions.
To demand improvements to working conditions, Columbia postdocs in 2018 voted to form their union, the first ever in the private sector, following in the footsteps of researchers at public universities in California, Washington, Alaska, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where unionization led to myriad improvements including increased wages, improved benefits, paid parental leave and protections from sexual harassment.
In July 2020, Columbia’s postdocs working with the UAW ratified a collective bargaining agreement which included major victories for postdoctoral pay, benefits and protections against harassment and for international workers. However, the three-year contract has recently expired while efforts to bargain for our successor contract, underway since April, have stalled.
Over on the East Side, researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine were watching closely. The pandemic increased workloads for Sinai laboratories on top of historic increases in inflation, affecting the ability of researchers to do the work they love while affording to live in the city.
While our peers at Columbia received guaranteed annual raises, paid parental leave and job security protections, no such benefits existed at Sinai. Sinai’s 550 postdoctoral workers overwhelmingly voted for a union last June and have now been bargaining for our first contract for nearly a year. Like at Columbia, the Sinai administration has delayed responding to key proposals and negotiations have similarly stalled.
As bargaining committee representatives, we have a front-row seat to these unfair tactics. We work extensively on top of our research responsibilities to draft each article in our contract, meet with UAW representatives for strategic advice, and negotiate with administrators at the bargaining table.
At Sinai, the administration has agreed to meet for the equivalent of one half-day per month despite our repeated requests for more time. At Columbia, administration has refused to engage entirely on some issues, while not engaging seriously on others.
Both teams have included testimonials from workers who had difficulties with multiple aspects of their academic and personal life, including bullying and power-based harassment, intellectual property disputes, low wages and insufficient benefits. Increased salaries is a major issue in both contracts: as the minimum postdoc salary at both institutions has stayed around $60,000 for years, peer NYC institutions including Rockefeller University, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and New York University Langone have recently announced increases to minimum pay to $70,000. Many Ivy League universities have set $65,000 minimums in lower cost-of-living cities. Columbia has so far not even met this standard during bargaining, while Sinai failed to respond to key economic demands for three months after they were first proposed.
Another major demand from both bargaining committees is housing. Rents have skyrocketed in Manhattan, exceeding those of any other U.S. city and where a one-bedroom apartment costs over $4,000 per month on average. The housing crisis is no news to institutions like Columbia University, currently one of the biggest landlords in the city, and yet the institution either does not provide housing benefits or provides housing at rates that are unaffordable for its employees.
Among others, housing is a topic that the Columbia administration continues to refuse to discuss at the bargaining table. At Mount Sinai, postdocs are offered subsidized housing for our first three years. Both units demand affordable housing for the entirety of the postdoctoral contract.
Both campaigns also center affordable childcare and support for postdocs who are parents.
Benefits like access to on-site daycare, a childcare stipend, school-supported dependent savings account and paid parental leave would substantially ease the burden on postdocs with families. Parental support is particularly important to promote equity and support women who often decide to leave academia as it is the only option to be able to have a family. Multiple surveys, including some conducted by the National Institutes of Health, find that postdocs across the country share identical concerns.
Sinai postdocs, fighting for our first contract, are negotiating for some protections which Columbia workers won in 2020. To improve our job security, we demand just cause protections. Currently, our bosses can, and do, terminate our contracts without any justification, often leading to urgent financial and immigration-related distress. No postdoc union allows this practice; instead, all terminations must be for a well-documented and performance-related reason.
Another major set of protections concerns discrimination, harassment and bullying, all of which are pervasive problems in academia. Columbia workers won rights to immediate protections in the case of abuse. They also have no deadlines for filing a harassment-related complaint and can escalate those complaints to a neutral third-party arbitrator if the university’s procedures are not sufficient. These protections are not currently offered at Sinai and have been a focus of bargaining sessions so far.
Yet, while this reaction from our administrations has been disheartening, we have been able to make real progress. Through direct actions, by sharing our stories online and in the press and with the support of allies, we have continuously fought to break through the indifference shown by our institutions.
And, although most of us have come to the U.S. only recently, we channel the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers across the ages who — despite financial hurdles — continue to move ahead, driven by the belief that anything is possible in this city of dreams.
Faced with administrations that seem more focused on creating delays and intimidating workers than on bargaining, postdocs at Columbia and Mount Sinai recently announced votes to authorize our bargaining committees to call for a strike.
Postdoc strikes at the University of California and University of Washington over the past year — the first postdoc strikes in history — led to massive disruptions to research and teaching operations at their universities.
Ultimately, these postdocs won contracts with major gains for their compensation, benefits and rights. We hope Columbia and Mount Sinai will bargain intensively with us to avoid a strike by reaching timely agreements. If they do not, we stand united and strike-ready alongside thousands more postdocs across New York and nationwide who are building their own campaigns for dignity, respect and fair treatment by their institutions. Change will come in academia when workers like us stand up and demand it.
Andrea Joseph is a postdoctoral scholar at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Stefano Cataldi is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
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