OUR RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS GENERATED BY THE UNIVERSITY AROUND OUR VOTE TO UNIONIZE
With a union, all union decisions – including the decision about whether or not to strike – will be made democratically by postdoctoral researchers. With a union, postdocs and associate research scientists will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining and whether or not a strike is necessary.
A strike is a very powerful tool for unionized workers, but a strike would only occur if union members decide a strike is necessary. The decision to strike is made collectively; under the UAW, two-thirds of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote yes in order to authorize a strike. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual decision whether or not to participate. Striking is a last resort as a tactic and is rare. Ninety-eight percent of union contracts are reached without a strike.
While strikes are rare, it is not uncommon that workers decide it is necessary to prepare for a possible strike in order to convince a university to reach a reasonable agreement during negotiations. At the University of California, for example, the postdoc union UAW Local 5810, reached an agreement with the administration after a majority of postdocs voted to authorize a strike. At New York University, the graduate employee union GSOC-UAW Local 2110 reached an agreement with NYU after a majority of graduate employees authorized the bargaining committee to call a strike if they deemed necessary.
At other institutions where postdocs have unions, collective bargaining has not produced these results. Because all union decisions will be made by postdocs and researchers, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining at Columbia.
And as a union we will have access to Columbia University’s financial information that affects postdoctoral researchers, which will make it possible for us to be well-informed and conscientious as we engage in bargaining. Both the union membership and the administration have to agree on a contract and neither party would want a result that hurts the quality research happening at Columbia University. Collective bargaining simply means we can negotiate as equals in order to hold Columbia more accountable to do the best it can do.
Empirically, the overall number of RAs (and TAs) has grown at the University of Washington since unionization in 2004, as has the number of postdocs at the University of California since unionization in 2008. Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.
In addition, many PIs appreciate working with unionized researchers, because a union contract means PIs do not have to negotiate every term and condition of employment (from wages to health care to leave to childcare to non-discrimination protections to vacation to appointment letter terms, etc) and instead can focus on their research.
With a union, wage and benefits improvements are negotiated centrally through Columbia University’s administration, but likely, with the flexibility and encouragement for PIs who can afford it to pay their researchers more than the contractually mandated minimums. Columbia University is responsible for agreeing to terms that enable departments and PIs to meet contractual commitments. In some cases, as in the case of the wage increases fought for by the UAW and other labor unions and then mandated by the change in the Fair Labor Standards Act, the University has explained that funding for wage increases should come from the PIs grants where possible, but in cases where the grant cannot cover the increase, the attention could be brought to Deans for central funding.
In addition, a postdoc collective bargaining agreement can provide greater stability to help PIs predict how much funding they should write into their grant requests to support their postdocs.
No UAW union for academic workers has negotiated a contract that requires all covered employees to make the same amount. And because we as postdocs will make our own decisions about our contract we would likely not negotiate for or vote to approve a contract that requires all postdocs to be paid the same. As an example, we could propose a wage structure like the one that postdocs at the University of California bargained that includes:
I heard an administrator say if we unionize and negotiate pay increases, we might have fewer jobs overall.
Collective bargaining at other universities has not produced this result. Because all union decisions will be made by postdocs and researchers, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining. And as a union we will have access to Columbia University’s financial information that affects postdocs, which will make it possible for us to be well-informed and conscientious as we engage in bargaining.
It is a common misconception that by bargaining for improved working conditions, unions make it too expensive to employ workers. In reality, higher education unions have advocated for increased higher education and science funding while working for improved working conditions for scientists. As an example, advocacy by the postdoc union at the University of California has resulted in a 25% average wage increase for postdocs since 2010 while at the same time the number of postdocs employed by the University of California has increased from 5800 to 6200 since 2010.
Finally, we have more power to protect jobs through collective action and the protections of a legally binding contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action that is inconsistent with job offers that were accepted by the employee. Not only would we be able to act collectively, but we would have the full backing of the many unionized employees on campus and the larger UAW International Union.
The EVP email made it sound like the Union would level salaries and bring mine as an Associate Research Scientist down to the salary level of Postdocs who make less than me. Has that happened at other universities with unions?
No. Collective bargaining has not produced that result at the other unionized universities, because workers have never democratically decided to bargain for pay cuts to individual groups. Of the 75,000 postdocs, adjunct faculty and graduate workers in the UAW, it is very common to have a “bargaining unit” where pay rates before collective bargaining vary as widely as they do at Columbia, either between or within job classifications. Previous contracts have established improved minimum pay rates, guaranteed annual increases for all, and maintained the flexibility of individuals to negotiate higher rates where the University agrees to do so. No contract has reduced anyone’s pay to a lower level.
The University of California provides a good example, as postdoc salaries varied prior to the first contract and continue to vary after several rounds of contract negotiations. Their agreement ensures that all 7,000 UC Postdocs – at ten different Universities and one National Laboratory – are guaranteed minimum salaries that make them the highest paid Postdocs at a public university in the U.S., while preserving the flexibility of their PIs to pay them more than the minimums as individual circumstances dictate. The UC Postdoc contract states: “Nothing shall preclude the University from providing compensation to Postdoctoral Scholars at rates above those required in this Article. Such rates may be provided on appointment, reappointment, anniversary date, and/or as a merit increase.”
In another example, the University of Washington graduate student workers, probably the most similar to us since it has a large medical school with hundreds of RAs, a variable pay system existed before the contract and continues under the contract. Under that system, there are minimum pay rates that all departments must follow, but departments are free to pay higher rates. Graduate workers at UW democratically chose to preserve that system, and, while those at the lower pay rates have experienced larger increases, everyone’s pay has gone up after unionization.
In all cases, these guaranteed gains were larger than the small percentage in membership dues, which is why these contracts were overwhelmingly ratified.
Feel free to read summaries of the before and after effects of collective bargaining at these and various other universities on the CPW-UAW website.
At Columbia, we will decide what to bargain for and we will determine our own fates collectively with the ratification of our contract. In hundreds of conversations across campus over the last two years, no one has said the Union should propose leveling pay or that anyone should take a pay cut, so there is no basis for the union to propose pay leveling.
I heard Columbia claim that the UAW opposes the rights of international workers to work in the US. Is that true?
No. In fact quite the opposite. As part of a powerful national political action program, which international academic workers have helped shape, the UAW has pursued a number of progressive resolutions on immigration and international worker issues. Below are excerpts from these resolutions. You can read the most recent UAW positions on immigration here. You can also read a powerful opinion piece by the postdoc union at University of Calironia in response to Columbia’s misleading claims during the graduate worker election in December 2016.
- International academic workers, who contribute enormously to the intellectual and cultural environment of educational institutions around the country, are routinely exploited in the workplace. They often receive low pay and few benefits. In addition, since Sept. 11, 2001, they have been the target of misguided, discriminatory policies that impose severe burdens. The recent wave of organizing in higher education, led in part by international academic workers, has led to improvements. But more needs to be done.”
- The UAW supports comprehensive immigration reform, which would “Increase the flexibility and length of work opportunities for international academic workers employed by U.S. universities and for their families. Visa processing should be streamlined, and the transition to permanent residency and citizenship should be expedited. This will enhance the intellectual and cultural environment at our universities, while helping to ensure that international academic workers have equitable compensation and equal workplace rights.”
- The resolutions included this call to action: “Tell Congress to provide increased protections for the rights of international academic workers, including their civil rights and liberties. Congress should oppose any measures that would discriminate against or impose burdens on them. International academic workers should receive adequate, equal compensation and have the opportunity to become permanent residents and citizens.”
- No limits on employment-based green cards for foreign students who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in scientific and technical fields, along with other measures to liberalize visas for foreign students. These changes will benefit many UAW members employed as teaching and research assistants at colleges and universities.
The Executive Vice President for Research says the union might negotiate a limit on how many hours I can spend in the lab. Has that happened at other universities?
No. It is important to remember that postdoctoral researchers will determine our bargaining priorities democratically here at Columbia, and we will vote to ratify any new contract provisions as well before they go into effect. We care deeply about our research, but also want to have some work-life balance in our lives. At the University of California, as an example, postdocs negotiated language accommodating that balance, acknowledging the professional nature of being a full-time postdoc, where the work focuses on accomplishing the research goals, while discouraging arbitrary assignment of an unreasonable number of hours unconnected to the research goals. We are confident that if Columbia bargains in good faith, we can achieve similar balance.
The workweek “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.”