Executive Vice President G. Michael Purdy’s evolving website makes increasingly clear Columbia’s preference that we vote against unionization in our upcoming National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. In his latest effort, “What you might not know,” Purdy makes a number of additional confusing and misleading points. Read below for clarifications and additional information, with sources, from CPW-UAW.
Below are common misconceptions about unionization.


Supplemental Information to What You Should Know


 

WHAT THEY SAY WHAT THEY LEAVE OUT
What is a union?

A union is an organization that represents a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” A union negotiates on behalf of this group of employees to establish collective terms and conditions of employment such as wages and benefits.

Columbia’s answer is technically true.  In our case, postdocs formed CPW-UAW as a union in order to bargain collectively with Columbia and otherwise advocate to improve our lives.  For future bargaining, we would elect a committee of postdocs to represent us, and we would vote on whether to approve any new terms of employment. We would also work with and draw on the experience of experienced representatives of the UAW, the national union representing more postdocs than any other union, including at the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, University of Washington, UMass and University of Connecticut.
How is the bargaining unit determined?

The National Labor Relations Board determines the composition of the bargaining unit. The criterion used to determine whether a group of employees share enough in common to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit is the concept of a “community of interests.”

Again, technically true. The NLRB does ultimately determine the bargaining unit if the employer does not accept the unit proposed by the Union. Since Columbia opposed our proposed unit of Postdoctoral Research Scientists/Scholars/Fellows and Associate Research Scientists/Scholars, the NLRB held hearings and issued a decision. They agreed with our unit definition and ordered an election for all postdoctoral workers at Columbia.Columbia argued that postdocs are not workers and associate research scientists are so different from postdocs that they could not be represented in the same union. The NLRB disagreed with their arguments, and determined that everyone we petitioned for should be eligible to vote in an election.
How do unions obtain the right to represent employees and become their exclusive representative?

Union representation is typically determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. The union becomes your exclusive representative by obtaining a majority of “yes” votes from the group that votes.

If a majority of postdoctoral researchers vote yes for CPW-UAW in our upcoming NLRB election, Columbia would be legally obligated to bargain with our union. We will then be able to negotiate for improvements at Columbia like postdocs and other UAW academic workers across the country have done through collective bargaining.
If I signed an authorization card, do I have to vote in favor of the union if an election takes place?

No. You are not bound to vote for the union based on your signature on the authorization card.

Regardless of whether you signed a CPW-UAW authorization card or not, you are still eligible to vote in the union election. CPW-UAW encourages all eligible voters to participate.  At the University of Washington last spring, postdocs voted by an overwhelming 89% in favor of unionization, with 61% of all eligible postdocs voting yes
Who is eligible to vote in an election?

If your position is included in the bargaining unit, you may, and should vote.

The NLRB determined who is eligible to vote in the upcoming union election.Since a majority of postdoctoral researcher scientist/scholars/fellows and Associate Research Scientists signed up for the union, CPW-UAW proposed all 2,000 of us should be eligible to vote on and be represented as part of the union. Columbia argued that Postdocs should not have the right to vote on unionization at all and that Postdocs and Associate Research Scientists should be forced to have separate unions.  While Columbia neglects to share their position as part of its “be informed” page, you may read the details on the CPW-UAW website.

When the NLRB Regional Director issued their decision, they confirmed what we know to be true: we should all be in one union and bargain collectively.

If there is an election, is there a minimum number of Postdocs that must vote in order to decide the outcome?

No. The outcome of a union election is a simple majority of those who vote. For example, if only 100 Postdocs vote, then 51 yes votes will secure representation.

It takes a simple majority of those voting to establish CPW-UAW as our union, but to build maximum momentum to win a strong contract, we encourage all eligible voters to participate. At the University of Washington last spring, for example, postdocs voted by an overwhelming 89% in favor of unionization, with 61% of all eligible postdocs voting.
What is the difference between being a union “member” and just being represented by a union?

As a member, you have the right to vote on union business, including electing union officials, voting on negotiation issues, and/or ratifying the collective bargaining agreement. If you are not a member, the union still represents you, but you do not have voting rights.

Again, technically accurate, but it is important to have a strong membership since it makes for the most representative and most effective unions. One of the reasons postdocs chose the UAW is a strong track record of strong membership and majority democratic participation in academic unions like that of postdocs at the University of California and University of Washington.
Would status as an international Postdoc affect eligibility to be included in the union?

No. All members of the bargaining unit would belong to the union regardless of citizenship status.

International postdocs have the same rights as US citizens to participate in union activity. Thousands of international academic workers across the United States have been active in their unions for more than 40 years, including the graduate workers here at Columbia.
Would my visa status be affected by unionization?

No union has the ability to prevent the US Government from denying visas or work permits or deporting international workers.

For years, higher education unions in the UAW have fought to improve protections for international workers, including bargaining increased appointment and visa lengths, protections against visa delays, and strengthened protections against discrimination and harassment. At the national level, international workers through the UAW have fought for Congress to expand access to visas and green cards for international workers, and helped lead the fight to ensure that the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program was expanded after a lawsuit that threatened to reduce it. Recently the UAW has fought against the Executive Orders issued by President Trump which targeted international students and scholars.   The International Students Working Group of GWC-UAW Local 2110 has fought for years on Columbia’s campus to protect international student employees from wrongful termination, tax errors, unfair international student fees and the Trump administration’s travel ban. The UAW’s commitment to international students and scholars stems from the leadership of international students and scholars themselves. Postdoc and graduate employee unions affiliated with UAW are often lead by international students and scholars, who serve in top leadership positions in local unions nationwide.
If a simple majority of Postdocs choose unionization, will I have to become a member of that union and pay dues?

You are not required to become a member. However, the union would have the right to collect dues/fees from all the employees in the bargaining unit, whether or not they wish to be represented by this union. You will be considered an Agency Fee Member instead of a Union Member. You will not be eligible to vote on the changes negotiated by the Union in your working conditions as part of the contract negotiations.

No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. However, in most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit receives all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. But such a provision is not automatic. The inclusion of a similar provision at Columbia would be subject to negotiation with Columbia, and contingent on postdoc ratification as part of our contract. At the University of California, postdocs have been unionized for over 10 years and a supermajority of all the postdocs are members of the union and participate vigorously in voting on important issues like the ratification of their most recent contract. The more postdocs that are members of the union and participate, the more power that we have to fight for a fair contract at Columbia.
Who determines the union dues that employees must pay?

The union determines the amount of the union dues and agency fees. According to UAW, the “dues in UAW Local 2110 are 2% of gross pay received from Columbia.”

UAW membership dues are determined democratically by the membership, and are currently 1.44% of gross income. We would pay dues/fees only after voting and approving our first contract. Some locals, like Local 2110, which represents the Columbia graduate student employees and the clerical staff at Columbia, have voted to increase the amount dues they pay in order to have more resources. CPW-UAW will become its own local union and members will pay 1.44% in dues after a contract is ratified.
If the Postdocs unionize at Columbia, would there be another election in the future to determine union representation?

Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely. The process to decertify a union is complex, may take several years, and cannot be initiated until one year after the election, or while any collective bargaining agreement is in place.

Decertification is not complex as it follows the same process as forming a union. From the National Labor Relations Board: “At least 30% of your coworkers must sign cards or a petition asking the NLRB to conduct an election. Unless a majority of the votes cast in the election are in favor of union representation, the union will be decertified.” In other words, we get to vote in the initial election to establish our right to sit down and bargain as equals with Columbia.  If we decide later that we think it would be better to go back to the system where Columbia can change our conditions unilaterally, we can do so through the legally-established decertification process. Fortunately, academic workers in the UAW have a strong record of majority support for the results of contract negotiations.
I know that the Postdocs at the University of California and at the University of Massachusetts are unionized. What makes having a postdoc union at Columbia different?

The University of California and the University of Massachusetts are public universities.  Public universities are governed by state labor laws, which tend to limit the matters that can be negotiated. Columbia is a private university and is governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). There are no private universities with unionized postdocs. The NLRA requires collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.  The NLRA allows (but does not require) bargaining on other topics.

The real difference is that unlike those universities that have respected the choice of postdocs to unionize Columbia does not want to bargain over any topic. While the administration would like to distract us with unnamed fears about the range of issues that can be negotiated under the NLRA, they are silent on the successful track record of other academic unions in the UAW, which you can find here, or the fact that they made exactly the same argument when they began fighting the graduate employee union at Columbia over four years ago.
What if an individual Postdoc objects to a provision in the labor contract, would he or she still be bound to it?

Yes. Collective bargaining is, by definition, collective in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all Postdocs in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates applies to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for explicitly in the contract. Your supervisors will not have the ability to make any adjustments in your salary, benefits or working conditions based on differences that may impact your campus or your field of research. They will be bound by whatever the union leaders negotiate in the union contract.

We, as postdoctoral researchers at Columbia, are the union. Right now we do not have a say over decisions Columbia makes that affect our working conditions, so we are effectively “bound” to abide by them. With a union, we would have an equal voice in those decisions, through electing a bargaining committee, determining our bargaining priorities, voting on our bargaining platform, negotiating a contract, and voting on whether it should go into effect. The contract will provide standard minimums for wages, benefits, etc. There would be nothing preventing your supervisor from adding on top of those terms. Our postdoc union’s aim is to ensure that all postdocs have fair representation and a good starting position.
Can faculty and Postdocs speak to one another about unionization?

Academic freedom allows all members of the University to express their views on all subjects. As a practical matter though, faculty when addressing union-related issues with Postdocs must follow rules that generally govern communication between “employees” and their managers and supervisors. Members of the faculty have the right to  express their opinion on these subjects as long as they do so in a manner that avoids what may be considered “threats, interrogations, promises of benefits, or surveillance.” Schools and departments may decide to hold general meetings to discuss the subject, and individual faculty may speak to individual Postdocs, as long as the exchange happens in an open setting (e.g. not in a faculty member’s office).

Columbia opposed the right of more than half of us to vote on forming a union, by arguing that Postdocs are not employees of the university, and are only at Columbia “to further [our] professional training”. As the individuals responsible for the vast majority of the award-winning and highly profitable research conducted at Columbia, we know that we are employees of the university just like tens of thousands of other postdocs around the US.The decision of whether to form a union is one that postdocs have the right to make free from influence by Columbia or by our PI’s. Federal law recognizes the imbalance of power that exists between employers like Columbia and employees, and seeks to protects employees’ ability to decide for themselves on whether to unionize.
How can I express my opinion about whether or not I am represented by a union?

You can express your opinion by making a decision on whether or not to sign an authorization card that will make the union your exclusive representative. You can also express your opinion by voting if there is an election, by either voting for union representation or against it.

After hundreds of conversations about unionization a majority of postdoctoral researchers have signed up in support of CPW-UAW. We have hosted several open town halls and public meetings for postdoctoral researchers to ask questions and express their opinions and plan to host more in the future. We strongly encourage a continued dialogue on all the ways that research and working conditions can be improved for postdoctoral researchers at Columbia.
What happens after I choose unionization?

If you choose unionization, you may be restricted in talking directly to your supervisor or the University administration regarding your compensation, benefits, or grievances.  The Union is now your representative to discuss these matters with the University.

Columbia currently makes unilateral decisions about our compensation, benefits and grievances. With a union we would bargain as equals over these topics. Having a union would not restrict anyone’s ability to speak with their supervisor. At UC, for example, the contract makes clear that postdocs may negotiate individualized increases above the minimums guaranteed through collective bargaining.
If I choose unionization, will the Union provide me with career development services or networking opportunities?

Unions primarily engage in collective bargaining and handling grievances. Unions usually do not provide career development services or networking opportunities across a spectrum of organizations.

If postdocs decide it is a priority, the union could bargain for increased professional development resources.  But the union would not provide those services directly. Organizations like the Columbia University Postdoc Society, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and the University Senate have also done amazing work in providing postdocs with career development, networking, and skills training opportunities but do not have the ability to bargain collectively with the administration of the university.
How does a strike happen?

For a strike to occur, union leadership must call for a strike, which can only occur if enough union members have voted for the strike.  Each individual union has rules dictating what percentage of workers must vote for a strike in order for it to occur. When workers strike, they stop coming to work and the employer may reduce operations or shut down.

Strikes are one tactic amongst many that can be employed in fighting for a fair contract. In the UAW a strike can only be called for by elected representatives after a ⅔ majority strike authorization vote by the members of the union. While strikes are a last resort, there are many options available to us to help win the best contract possible. When the University of California postdocs took strike ratification votes, 96% of participating postdocs – including a majority of all postdocs — voted in favor of authorizing the bargaining committee to call a strike if necessary. A strike was not necessary to achieve a fair contract that was subsequently ratified overwhelmingly by the members.
If I strike, will I be paid?

The University has the right to withhold your pay.

This is true. Workers have the right to strike. Employers have the right to, but are not required to, withhold pay from striking workers.  For example, Columbia chose not to stop paying striking graduate workers in April 2018. The possibility of losing pay would certainly be a feature of any future discussions among postdocs of whether to vote to authorize a strike.
Does the union provide assistance to workers in the event of a strike?

According to the United Auto Workers, in the event of a strike lasting more than seven days, striking workers would be eligible to receive strike pay from the United Auto Workers of up to $200 per week for the duration of the strike.

The UAW has one of the largest strike funds of any union in the United States, currently over $600 million, which is an important source of bargaining leverage. In the event of a democratically-authorized strike of eight days or longer, the UAW international union does offer strike assistance to workers whose wages are being withheld. Being part of a national organization, which includes 75,000 other academic workers, gives us more power and resources to fight for improvements in our workplace.
If there is a union, will postdoc salaries be determined to be the same throughout the entire bargaining unit?

For example, will English and Biology postdocs receive the same pay? A union negotiates on behalf of the group of employees to establish collective terms and conditions of employment such as pay and benefits.

While we would democratically determine our bargaining priorities at Columbia, no UAW academic union has negotiated a pay structure that levels salaries in this way.  As a good example, UC postdocs in UAW Local 5810 have negotiated contracts that increase salary minimums, while making sure that PIs have the ability to pay you more than that.
If a postdoc is at the University for a short period of time, say two months, and the vote is to be held a day before the postdoc is leaving, are they eligible to vote?

The National Labor Relations Board will determine who specifically is eligible to vote in any union election.

It is true the NLRB will determine the actual eligibility standard. It is true the NLRB will determine the actual eligibility standard. According to the regional NLRB election order, eligible voters will include Postdoctoral Research Scientists, Postdoctoral Research Scholars, Postdoctoral Research Fellows, Associate Research Scientists and Associate Research Scholars who were employed during the payroll period ending September 15, 2018, and those paid by stipends on September 1, 2018.
If you are unsure about your eligibility, email us at [email protected] and we will let you know.

Supplemental Information for What You Might Not Know


 

WHAT THEY SAY WHAT THEY LEAVE OUT
The amount of money that I must provide to the Union in dues will be very small

Members of the United Auto Workers (“UAW”) pay dues equal to 2% of their total compensation during the time that they are employed in a union position. These dues are automatically deducted from their paychecks.

For example, if a Postdoc receives $50,123 per year, at a 2% deduction rate, union dues would amount to $1,002 per Postdoc, per year. If an Associate Research Scientist receives $56,300 per year, at a 2% deduction rate, union dues would amount to $1,126 per Associate Research Scientist, per year.

Annually, the contribution to UAW from our estimated 975 Postdocs and 636 Associate Research Scientists/Scholars would amount to a minimum of $1,693,086. In addition to dues, UAW may also charge an initiation fee of up to $50. For more information on salary ranges, see here.

First off, dues will be 1.44% in CPW-UAW, consistent with the national UAW dues rate.  EVP Purdy keeps citing the dues rate for UAW Local 2110, whose member voted locally to set dues higher than the standard UAW rate, even though CPW-UAW will not become part of Local 2110.

Second, CPW-UAW has never characterized dues as large or small, only that dues provide critical resources, independent of Columbia, for us to represent ourselves effectively.  For example, dues resources enabled unionized University of California postdocs to play a lead role winning significantly higher salaries for postdocs across the US through Department of Labor rule changes in 2016. For other examples of the kind of representation dues enables, read about how academic workers at the University of Washington have successfully enforced their rights on issues ranging from tuition and fee waivers to pregnancy discrimination or how University of Connecticut graduate assistants have effectively addressed sexual harassment in the workplace.

And, third, let’s remember—we decide when anyone starts paying dues because no one pays dues until we vote as postdocs to approve a contract negotiated by our elected bargaining committee.  UAW academic workers have a strong track record of majority democratic participation in such contract approval votes.

 

I do not have to pay dues if I do not want to be a member of the Union

Federal labor law allows unions to charge bargaining unit members, who do not want to be a part of the Union, an agency or representation fee, which is roughly equivalent to the amount charged for union dues.  Typically, unions negotiate for contractual language that requires employers to deduct dues or equivalent fees and send the money to the union.

As CPW-UAW has stated on numerous occasions since postdocs started organizing more than a year ago: “No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. However, in most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit receives all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. But such a provision is not automatic. The inclusion of a similar provision at Columbia would be subject to negotiation with Columbia, and contingent on postdoc ratification as part of our contract. At the University of California, postdocs have been unionized for over 10 years and a supermajority of all the postdocs are members of the union and participate vigorously in voting on important issues like the ratification of their most recent contract. More generally, UAW academic unions have a strong record on majority democratic participation.  The more postdocs that are members of the union and participate, the more power that we have to fight for a fair contract at Columbia.”

 

My dues will only be used to further the interests of Columbia Postdocs and Associate Research Scientists and Associate Research Scholars

According to the UAW’s website, dues are the sole source of revenue for all operational costs including staff, legal costs, rent, equipment, etc.  Dues also pay the costs of organizing new workplaces. The dues collected at Columbia may be used to contribute to the organizing efforts of other university workers. A major portion of the dues and fees collected go into the UAW headquarters budget, not to the local union affiliate.

CPW-UAW has never made such a statement.  Dues provide critical resources that enable us to have more power in our workplace and on a national scale to advocate for issues that are important to us.  We benefit both from the portion that stays with our local and the portion that goes to the national UAW.  As noted above, you can read numerous examples of how dues enable local unions to negotiate improved pay, benefits and protections and enforce rights in the workplace. Dues to the national UAW enable support from technical experts in bargaining, legal assistance, and resources to pursue political priorities that matter to us as scientists and scholar: read here about UAW efforts to expand federal research funding and here for a great piece by University of California postdocs on how the UAW enables a stronger voice on international worker issues.
The Union will not use my dues for lobbying or to support political candidates

The UAW contributes millions of dollars each year, from its sole source of revenue, namely dues, to political candidates and lobbying campaigns.

And again, not something CPW-UAW has ever said.  It is true that dues may not be used for federal candidate contributions—resources for that kind of political action are raised through voluntary contributions from UAW members.  However, a very small amount of dues, 3%, goes toward other forms of political action and enables workers to amplify our voices through the national strength of the UAW on important issues like federal research funding, international workers’ rights, and stopping the proposed tax on tuition waivers recently.
Salaries will be increased with union representation

 

All terms and condition of employment, including salaries, must be negotiated between the parties.  It is impossible to predict if current salaries and benefits will change with union representation; as there are no guarantees.

As we have said all along, joining together and engaging in collective bargaining gives workers more power to achieve improvements.  Recent experience at Columbia is no exception.  In the last few years as graduate workers and postdocs have organized locally and nationally, Columbia has offered larger salary increases than before, especially for postdocs. In 2016, Columbia significantly increased the minimum postdoc salary, but only after the Obama-era Department of Labor implemented new rules requiring the $47, 476 minimum.  Postdocs at the University of California and the UAW played a lead role advocating for the new rules on minimum salaries.
The Union will ensure that Columbia employees obtain a better benefit package

While the Union may propose a change, any benefit change must be negotiated and agreed to by the parties.  At Columbia, we are proud of our recent enhancements to the benefit package, which includes an annual child-care stipend of $2,000 per child under the age of 5 and not yet attending kindergarten; this annual amount will be increased to $3,000, effective January 1, 2019.  In addition, Postdocs and Officers of Research receive a substantial benefits package, which include health, dental, life insurance, and access to the employee assistance program.

Again, we have only said that organizing and bargaining increase our ability to win improvements.  Even before bargaining, Columbia has already improved numerous benefits for graduate workers and postdocs after we started organizing.  In addition to a wide array of other improvements since grad workers formed GWC-UAW in 2014, Columbia recently offered graduate student workers fully-paid dependent health insurance coverage, the only Ivy League university to do so.  Columbia has also offered a number of improvements to postdoc benefits, including health insurance for Fellows and larger child care subsidies since we started organizing.  UAW Local 5810 at UC has been able to reach agreements with the University based on both parties agreeing that improved postdoctoral working conditions enhance the quality of research. Read more about the most recent contract summary from UAW Local 5810 here.
The Union will negotiate for a better process to seek redress of my concerns

The University has various resources available to Postdocs to have their concerns heard and addressed.  The grievance procedures can be found in the Faculty Handbook at this link: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/vpaa/handbook/research.html#grievance_procedures

Empirically, unions have negotiated superior forms of redress for numerous workplace problems, and many Columbia postdocs have cited this as a reason to vote yes.  Let’s just look at one issue, sexual harassment, which the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine acknowledged recently is a widespread problem in academia. Academic workers at unionized universities have negotiated fair grievance procedures and engaged in effective advocacy to address sexual harassment. Under the unilateral policies of the administration, on the other hand, most observers agree that Columbia, like many universities, has failed to offer fair redress to survivors of assault and harassment.
My concerns will be quickly resolved in a unionized environment

The grievance and arbitration procedure is typically a multi-step process. In the UAW contract covering administrative employees at Columbia, the grievance must be presented to the immediate supervisor promptly after the occurrence that gave rise to the grievance.  Failure to do so will result in the grievance being deemed waived by the employee and the Union.  If the dispute is not resolved at Step 1, the Union has five (5) working days to submit a written appeal of the dispute to Step 2, which is made to the Department Head or designee.  Thereafter, the Union has seven (7) working days, from the Step 2 denial, to submit a written Step 3 appeal to the Director of Employee Relations.  The Union has fifteen (15) working days to submit an appeal of the Step 3 decision to arbitration.  The scheduling of an arbitration can take a year or more.  The arbitration determination is final and binding on all parties.  A grievance process can take months or years to complete.

Empirical evidence speaks for itself.  Under its own procedures, Columbia has taken decades to address widely acknowledged and experienced sexual assault and/or harassment by major scholars on campus.  Alternatively, a University of Connecticut Graduate Assistant who alleged sexual harassment and assault by her advisor/PI in 2015 worked with her union to achieve a highly favorable resolution in three months after filing a grievance.
I do not have to participate in a strike

Members of the bargaining unit may be fined if they refuse to participate in a strike called by the Union.

No academic worker has ever been fined by the UAW for not participating in a strike—this is just an attempt to create fear so that we will vote against having a union.
I can still perform my research even if the Union calls for a strike

During a strike, union members may be prohibited from performing their usual work responsibilities, including research activities, which may delay your research agenda.

Participation in a strike is an individual choice.  No academic worker has ever been “prohibited” from continuing their work–this is just an attempt to create fear so that we will vote against having a union.

Supplemental Information for Faculty


 

PURDY’s TALKING POINTS WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Dear Colleague,
I cannot overemphasize the crucial importance of the vote on Unionization of Postdocs and Associate Research Scientists and Scholars that is scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday. Columbia is the first private university to face a union election concerning this bargaining unit. If the UAW prevails, the working relationship between you and the members of your research group will be forever changed. The complex blend of education, shared purpose, ambition, and career advancement that typifies a healthy research group will be threatened by the introduction of Union agreements that will control the specifics of everyday activities. Moreover, the UAW’s willingness to routinely interfere with the academic activities of the University has been made plain by last April’s strike of teaching and research assistants, and recent threats of additional disruption this semester.
Below we list nine bullet points to help you in your discussions with the Postdocs and Associate Research Scientists and Scholars with whom you work. Please find time to talk to these issues and emphasize the importance of voting on October 2nd or 3rd (see http://unionization.research.columbia.edu for details).
Sincerely,
Mike Purdy
We care deeply about our research and contributions to the scholarly community at Columbia. We also care deeply about maintaining our collaborative working relationships with PIs at this university. We are quite confident we can negotiate a fair agreement with the Columbia administration that improves our compensation and benefits while continuing to enhance the quality of research at this university. Thousands of our colleagues have done so at the University of California, which after ten years of postdoc unionization, remains one of the top research institutions in the world, as have postdocs at the University of Massachusetts, Rutgers, University of Oregon, UConn Health Center and elsewhere.
There is no empirical basis for Dr. Purdy’s claim that “The complex blend of education, shared purpose, ambition, and career advancement that typifies a healthy research group will be threatened by the introduction of Union agreements that will control the specifics of everyday activities.” If there was, surely Dr. Purdy would have provided that empirical evidence to the campus community. And to blame “the UAW” for the RA and TAs striking after three years of Columbia refusing to respect an overwhelming democratic vote and a massive strike authorization vote by RAs and TAs themselves is a bit deceptive.

In the interest of helping the campus community remain as informed as possible, we provide some additional information below for you to consider as you read Dr. Purdy’s “talking points.”

Individual working conditions would likely be governed by a contract, and not negotiated outside of it. Changes to compensation, time off, or other working conditions that are currently able to be discussed between researchers and their PIs, would instead be governed by a universal contract and only changed with another round of negotiations between Columbia University and the UAW. There is no empirical basis for such an assertion. UAW academic contracts have established minimum rights on the types of issues raised here, while preserving the ability of PIs and postdocs to negotiate above those minimums on things like salaries. On time off, under the UC contract, a postdoc has the right to a certain number of days off, but the PI still must approve which days based on “operational needs.” Read the full contract language at http://uaw5810.org/know-your-rights/contract/#article17. PIs at UC, a world-class institution that brings in roughly $5 billion in grants each year, have continued to produce world-class research working with postdocs under this language since 2010.
The experience of state universities cannot predict the implications of unionization at Columbia. Private universities are not governed by state laws, which in many instances forbid public employees from striking. There are no private universities with postdoc unions, and the impact of such a union at Columbia is not known. The best example is the University of California, where postdocs have the right to strike just as at Columbia. UC postdocs have handled that right democratically and judiciously by voting to authorize strike action on a few occasions, but have negotiated several fair contracts without ever engaging in actual strike action. Purdy’s declaration of the “unknown” impact is, based on available evidence, overstated. He provides no meaningful evidence of relevant differences between a public and private tier 1 research university.
Seniority privileges could impact job security. Most collective bargaining agreements provide “bumping” privileges, meaning that more senior members can displace bargaining unit members with fewer years in the bargaining unit. For example, if a lab were to lose funding, rather than a researcher in that lab being laid off, a bargaining unit member in another lab, with similar skills and less seniority, might be laid off instead. No UAW postdoc union contract contains “bumping” provisions, so there is no empirical basis for Dr. Purdy’s claim that “most” contracts contain such provisions. None of us plan on proposing such provisions in our contract, so it is virtually impossible to imagine such provisions in a postdoc union contract at Columbia.
A union could impact working hours and thus, research timelines. Under collective bargaining, an employer and union are required to negotiate anything related to wages, benefits, or any other conditions of employment. Limits on hours could impact research progress. Again, no empirical basis in other contracts for the concern that collective bargaining “could impact research progress.” Postdocs and UC agreed on the following language: “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.” UC continues to be a top-notch research institution bringing in roughly $5 billion in grants each year.
Moreover, postdocs at Columbia have no interest in negotiating provisions that would make it more difficult to carry out research projects as junior or senior faculty, because many of us hope to hold such positions in our own labs in the future.
With unionization, there is always potential for strikes. If a strike is called, union members could be fined by the union if they continue to do work, like their research, during the strike. Strikes could be called at Columbia, and also in solidarity with other colleges or universities or bargaining units, like Columbia’s clerical workers. When Coatsworth warned graduate workers about fines, he was misinformed. So is Purdy. No academic worker has ever been fined by the UAW for choosing not to participate in a strike. If they had, surely Purdy would provide examples.
Benefits under a union contract cannot be guaranteed, but paying dues are a certainty. Under union representation, compensation and benefits are subject to collective bargaining and there is no guarantee that they will improve. What is certain is that all union members will be required to pay dues, typically 2% of total compensation for Local 2110 workers in the United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Workers of America (UAW). Those who choose not to join the union will be required to pay a similar amount, known as an “agency fee” to the union. Most union contracts include such provisions, but only after democratic approval by those represented under the contract. Purdy’s statement of “certainty” that non-members “will be required” to pay fair share fees is not true. We are capable of deciding what is best for us. The last contract at UC was approved by a 99% vote with a majority of all postdocs voting yes. We are confident in our ability make this decision for ourselves at Columbia. UC postdocs use their dues resources in numerous ways to advance science, such as in 2013 when they worked academic workers at the University of Washington to generate a strong letter in 2013 from 39 Congressional representatives supporting science and opposing the Sequester.
A union cannot help with visa issues. A union does not have the ability to prevent the U.S. government from denying visas or work permits, or deporting international workers. However, if you have come to Columbia from a foreign nation, you are supported by a well-resourced International Scholars and Students Office, which offers advising on all aspects of the visa process, and strongly advocates against changes in federal law that would harm international scholars. Not true. The UAW has already provided workshops at Columbia to help international academic workers understand visa issues, tax issues, and has provided a national voice to advocate for the OPT STEM extension and for easier access to green cards. It is unclear why Purdy has raised the question of deportation several times now in his communications, since postdocs have not been asking this question among ourselves.
A one-size-fits-all union contract may not meet the needs of all members of the unit. All of Columbia’s Postdoctoral Research Scientists, Postdoctoral Research Scholars, Postdoctoral Research Fellows, Associate Research Scientists, and Associate Research Scholars would be governed by the same contract. Would such a contract serve the diverse needs of both career research scientists, and postdocs? Postdocs at UC, as well as graduate student workers at the University of Washington and NYU, have negotiated fair contracts that represent equally diverse workforces to the postdoctoral unit at Columbia. If the administration bargains in good faith, we are confident we can do the same.
Those who vote decide. The result of this election will be determined by a simple majority of those who vote, even if the turnout is very small. However, the outcome will apply to everyone who is part of the bargaining unit, both currently and in the future. Once chosen, the process to de-certify a union is complex, and de-certification is rare. We agree it is important that all eligible voters inform themselves and vote. It is unfortunate that Dr. Purdy has declined our invitation to participate in a live, “open discussion of the pros and cons of postdoc unionization” and instead prefers to send misleading messages such as this one behind the firewall.