Columbia University postdocs vote to unionize with UAW

Stephon Johnson | 10/18/2018, 11:49 a.m.
If Columbia University’s administration would not listen to graduate workers, maybe they will listen to postdoctoral researchers. This month, the ...

If Columbia University’s administration would not listen to graduate workers, maybe they will listen to postdoctoral researchers.

This month, the Columbia’s postdocs voted to unionize with the United Auto Workers with 68 percent voting in favor. Now, the 2,000 postdocs and associate researcher scientists want to sit down with the administration to bargain for their first contract.

“By joining with 75,000 of our colleagues in the UAW, we have a huge opportunity to improve our workplace and to expand our voice beyond Columbia on issues that matter to us as researchers, such as federal science funding and immigration reform,” said Alvaro Cuesta-Dominguez, a researcher in the Department Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, in a statement.

But getting administrators to the bargaining table could prove to be difficult. After years of organizing, and then voting to join the UAW, Columbia University’s graduate workers are still waiting for administrators to talk with them about a new contract. Last winter, the National Labor Relations Board certified the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW as a union for graduate research and teaching assistants. Back in May, graduate workers hit the picket lines to protest Columbia University administrators and school president Lee Bollinger not coming to the bargaining table.

Like the graduate workers, the postdocs are also looking for the ability to negotiate competitive salaries to match the city’s cost of living, better workplace protections against sexual harassment and protection on immigration and visa issues for international postdocs.

“With this historic vote, we’re joining the rising wave of tens of thousands of postdocs and other academic workers forming unions across the country,” said Medini Annavajhala, a researcher in the Department of Medicine, in a statement.  “It was disappointing to see the Columbia administration put so much time, energy and resources intro trying to prevent us from voting at all, and when that failed, trying to convince us to vote no. This result sends a clear message that they need to come to the table swiftly.”

Postdocs and associate research scientists are researchers who have earned a Ph.D. and usually work under the supervision of a faculty member on various research projects. According to the UAW, their work helps bring close to $1 billion in research grants and contracts to Columbia annually.

That, said UAW President Gary Jones, is why postdocs want a contract and fair wages. They want to be properly compensated for what they bring to the institution.

“These workers have made a clear choice to be members of our union and engage in collective bargaining,” said Jones.  “Columbia should honor their decision by moving swiftly toward bargaining a fair first contract.”

“We have a strong track record of negotiating fair agreements with universities across the Northeast, and look forward to starting a new, constructive relationship with Columbia now that this group of workers has voted for UAW representation,” added Beverley Brakeman, director of UAW Regional 9A, in a statement.