Response to Columbia University’s email to faculty regarding postdoctoral researcher unionization

Response to Columbia University’s email to faculty regarding postdoctoral researcher unionization

We are about to release our FAQs on unionization for graduate students and postdocs, which attempts to provide the data and evidence around unionization, and fact-check information. As an example, Columbia University recently sent the following talking points to their faculty, which are fact-checked by a member of our Board of Directors below.

By Jack Nicoludis, PhD


Columbia University postdoctoral researchers will vote on whether they want the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers – United Auto Workers (CPW-UAW) to represent them in negotiations over pay, benefits and working conditions for postdocs on October 2 and 3, 2018. Columbia University has come out against the unionization attempt, stating that postdoctoral researchers are “merely trainees who, despite having a PhD degree, still require significant education.” University administrators have sent emails to different university stakeholders – including faculty – on why unionization may not be in the best interest of the university. They have provided faculty with “talking points” to help them discuss unionization with their postdoctoral researchers. (The full email can be found on a Twitter thread by Columbia University Sociology Professor Shamus Khan.) We have found these talking points biased against unionization in ways that are neither informed by data on the effects of unionization or take into account the democratic process by which a contract is ratified. To counteract this misinformation, we have attempted to provide unbiased analysis of these talking points to provide a counterpoint to these messages from Columbia’s administration from the point of view postdocs.


  1.     Individual working conditions would likely be governed by a contract, and not negotiated outside of it.

This first point raises an incredibly good argument. Currently, working conditions of postdocs at Columbia are not governed by a contract, but these positions are held at will by the university and the individual mentor. With a contract, a postdoc would know exactly how their pay raise is affected each year, how much sick leave and vacation time they get, and the protections against abuse and sexual assault from their research advisors that could be provided by the university. Examples of contracts for postdoctoral and graduate student unions can be found here:


University of California UAW Local 5810

Rutgers University AAUP-AFT

University of Washington UAW Local 4121

New York University UAW Local 2110


This talking point misunderstands how a contract is enforced, however, and the modifications that can be made based on individual postdoc-advisor relationships. If a postdoc wanted to work through their vacation time, they would give up this benefit of the contract. However, if a faculty member forced a postdoc to give up their vacation time in order to work, then the postdoc could file a grievance with the union to address this breach of contract. The contract allows flexibility for postdocs. For example, mentors are allowed to pay postdocs above the contract minimum or allow a postdoc to take extra time for parental leave based on an agreement between the postdoc and the mentor. However, if the postdoc and mentor reach an agreement that is in violation of the contract, the university or the union could work to enforce the terms of the contract as stipulated. In reality, this is seldomly done because grievances are almost also pursued by individual postdocs or their mentors if there is a dispute over adherence to the contract.


This talking point also addresses the mentoring relationship between faculty and student. Universities position the union as interfering with this mentoring relationship. However, there is no data to point to this as a real issue. In fact, a peer-reviewed study looking into the effect of unionization on the student-faculty relationship found no evidence that unions interfered with this relationship. This study found that “ unionized GSEs [graduate student employees] had higher mean ratings on their advisors accepting them as competent professionals, serving as a role model to them, being someone they wanted to become like, and being effective in his or her role.”


  1.     The experience of state universities cannot predict the implications of unionization at Columbia

It is true that no private universities have postdoc unions to date, but many state universities with union provide information on how unionization may impact Columbia University. Take for example the postdocs at the University of California, which includes UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, UC Merced, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Los Angeles, and UC San Diego. Postdocs in UAW Local 5810 are paid two years above the NIH minimum. Currently, new postdocs at Columbia are paid at the NIH minimum. We could expect that unionization may increase the wages of these postdocs, as it has done for those in UAW Local 5810.

This talking point also adds the fear of strikes, noting that some states prevent strikes for public employees, suggesting that unions at private universities might have a different set of negotiation strategies than public ones. However, public employees in California can strike, providing a counterpoint to this talking point. In 2015, postdocs in the UC postdoc union (UAW Local 5810) voted 96% in favor of striking during contract negotiation. These postdocs never actually went on strike because they reached a tentative agreement before the strike was scheduled to start. This is a common strategy to reach an agreement during stalled negotiations. Though strikes are a common strategy to reach an agreement during stalled negotiations, strikes are actually very rare events in the US. In fact, in 2017 fewer than 1% of unionized workers went on strike.


  1.     Seniority privileges could impact job security

The current postdoc unions lack “bumping” provisions and the majority of these contracts are negotiated with the help of the UAW. Thus, it is unlikely that the UAW or the workers themselves would advocate for including one in the contract for postdoctoral researchers at Columbia. In order for a bumping provision to be part of the contract the bargaining committee would need to identify it as a bargaining goal, during negotiations the university would have to agree to keep it in and then the postdocs would need to vote to approve it. This seems nearly impossible to imagine.

The example outlined in the email suggests that a postdoctoral researcher in one lab could outrank a postdoc in another lab, causing the firing of a postdoc in a different lab. However, due to project-based funding from government agencies it would be illegal for these funds to be used on a postdoctoral scholar who is not working on the funded project. Thus, it is unlikely that this specific example could occur unless the more senior postdoc changed advisors and projects even if a bumping provision found its way into the contract.


  1.     A union could impact working hours and thus, research timelines.

This talking point mostly appeals to PIs who hope to use their postdocs as cheap labor that they can ask to work any amount of time that they desire.


What could a union stipulate regarding working hours, vacation time, sick leave and parental leave? Unions established the 40 hour work week and the weekend, which provides some context of how unions can change established working norms. In a contract, it is typical for the contract to provide some guidelines about how much time one is expected to work. In the UAW Local 5810 contract, the article on time and effort commitment states:


  1. Postdoctoral Scholars are full-time FLSA-exempt professional appointees. Postdoctoral Scholars are appointed with the expectation that they will have a full time involvement in scholarly pursuits, except as provided in § B. and C. below.
  2. The workweek for full-time exempt appointees is normally at least 40 hours, with the emphasis placed on meeting the responsibilities assigned to the position, on making progress toward their professional goals, and on demonstrating their research and creative capabilities, rather than on working a specified number of hours. Required work schedules must be reasonable, and related to the research needs. In recognition of the professional exempt status of Postdoctoral Scholars, assigned work schedules provide the flexibility to meet research goals and to occasionally allow a schedule of less than 40 hours in a week.
  3. Full-time Postdoctoral Scholars do not receive overtime compensation or compensatory time off.
  4. Prior to requesting an exception, in accordance with §B below, Postdoctoral Scholars shall review alternative options under other articles of the contract, including: Article 2 – Appointments, Article 12 – Leaves, Article 17 – Personal Time Off, Article 21 – Reasonable Accommodation, and Article 23 – Sick Leave.

The established time commitment suggests 40 hours but allows flexibility for individuals and their projects. In addition to setting expectations for how much a postdoctoral researcher should work in a normal work week, the contract outlines vacation time, sick leave and parental leave as follows:


Vacation (personal time off): 24 days

University holidays: 13 days

Sick leave: 12 days

Parental leave: 4 weeks fully paid

Pregnancy disability leave: 8 weeks at 70% salary


  1.     With unionization, there is always the potential for strikes.

Looking back at the example of UAW Local 5810, postdocs voted overwhelmingly in favor of striking during contract negotiations of 2015. However, these postdocs did not go on strike because a tentative agreement was reached. Again, strikes are incredibly rare (1% of unionized workers went on strike in 2017), but they are also a commonly used threat to reach an agreement during stalled contract negotiations. Per the UAW constitution, 2/3 of voters must authorize a strike for it to move forward, setting a high bar for a strike to occur (Article 50 of the UAW Constitution). The decision to go on strike is left up to the individual, meaning those postdocs who do not agree with the strike can continue working if they choose.


The university, in turn, could call for a ‘lock out’ of all postdoctoral researchers if a strike occurs, which would require all postdocs to stay out of their offices and labs. There has never been a lock out during a strike of a postdoctoral or graduate student worker union.


  1.     Benefits under a union contract cannot be guaranteed, but paying dues are a certainty.

To obtain a contract, the workers of a union select a bargaining committee to represent them in negotiations. They provide input to the bargaining committee on bargaining priorities. The tentative agreement between the university and the bargaining committee is then brought to the full union for approval. Only after approval of a contract do union members pay dues. Thus, the workers are able to evaluate whether their contract includes significant improvements to justify the cost of dues payment.


Per the UAW constitution, dues are set at 1.44%. Individual locals can decide to increase dues to increase the representative power of their union. Local 2110, of which the grad workers of NYU and clerical and technical workers of Columbia University are members, voted to raise their dues to 2%. It is unclear whether the postdoctoral workers at Columbia will join Local 2110 and pay 2% dues, or a new local would be formed with the dues set initially at 1.44%.


A nonmember pays a “fair share” fee that is typically less than the cost of dues. Non-members cannot vote on contracts, strike authorization votes, or any other aspect of union representation. However, they do receive the contract set by the union, so the “fair share” fee covers the representational costs of the union.

UAW Local 5810 provides an example of things that could be secured through a contract. These include a 25% raise from 2010 to 2015, 70% parental leave for 8 weeks and 4 additional unpaid parental leave weeks and two-year appointments after an initial one-year appointment.


  1.     A union cannot help with visa issues.

Visas are generally outside the domain of labor negotiations. However, institutions often assist international scholars with filing and processing visas. In these cases, unions can hold the institution accountable for issues that arise due to mismanagement by the university. For example, the contract for UAW Local 5810 requires the university to compensate postdocs who have experienced losses due to delay of work authorization if it was a mistake of the employer.


The University of Connecticut graduate employee’s union (GEU-UAW) also has provisions to assist international students. Their contract includes an expedited grievance procedure for international students if their visa status may be threatened by the grievance. Their contract also includes a “Visa Compliance” fee waiver for international students.


  1.     A one-size-fits-all union contract may not meet the needs of all members of the unit

This argument overlooks the fact that a contract can be as detailed or broad as desired. A contract can have provisions for a specific department or a school within the university. An equally logical and true statement would be “A customized union contract may meet the needs of all members of the unit.”


  1.     Those who vote decide.

Yes, this is how democracy works.

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