What is CPW-UAW working on right now?

We are currently reaching out to postdoctoral researchers across campus to form a union. A majority of researchers have indicated their support for CPW-UAW as our union. We plan to file a petition to form a union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who can then hold an election of all eligible researchers working for Columbia University that would determine if we would form a union.

If the NLRB confirms a majority vote by postdoctoral researchers in favor of unionization, the University would have a legal obligation to negotiate in good faith for a contract covering pay, benefits and rights and protections for us at Columbia.  Please contact us if you would like to sign up and/or get more involved.

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Why are postdoctoral researchers forming a union?

We are forming a union because we believe that it is time for postdocs and researchers to advocate for ourselves collectively and on equal footing with the Columbia administration, particularly in an increasingly uncertain political and economic environment. We want to bargain and enforce our own terms and conditions of employment like the tens of thousands of graduate employees and postdocs across the country have done. Similarly we want a stronger voice in key policy decisions made outside the University but that affect us as researchers: federal funding for scientific research; compensation standards, such as the new overtime rules passed in 2016 by the US Department of Labor; and federal rules affecting immigrant and guest workers.  

By joining with unionized academic workers nationwide we hope to make changes that will create more positive work environments for future postdocs and improve career pathways for future scientists in the US and beyond.

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What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a legally-recognized process that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, Columbia postdoctoral researchers would elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the Columbia Administration and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, postdoc and graduate employee unions have successfully negotiated improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

Without collective bargaining, Columbia University has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, Columbia currently decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure we get paid on time or whether our stipends and salaries keep up with the cost of living in New York City.

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Why did we choose the UAW?

The UAW represents more than 65,000 academic workers across the United States, including more postdocs and graduate student employees than any other union. In the last four years alone, nearly 10,000 academic workers in the New York City area have chosen to become part of the UAW.

Read more here about UAW success helping academic workers negotiate concrete improvements to wages, benefits and workplace rights.

The UAW has particular experience negotiating and enforcing strong postdoc contracts. Most recently postdocs at the University of Washington voted by an overwhelming 89% percent to form their union with the UAW. The 7,000 postdocs at the ten University of California campuses approved their first UAW contract in 2010, and those at the University of Massachusetts approved their first contract in 2012.

More than 3,000 Columbia graduate student employees recently voted by an overwhelming 72% in favor of Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW as their union.  In addition to drawing on the UAW’s wide experience bargaining contracts with university administrators, we can exercise a stronger political voice through the UAW.  With active members at more than 45 major campuses across the US, the UAW has become a strong advocate on policy issues that matter to us as academics, such as federal support for science funding and enhancing the rights of international research scientists.


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What is the difference between the Columbia University Postdoc Society (CUPS) and a union?

Both a strong union and a postdoc organization can play an important role in improving the lives of Columbia University postdocs. While CUPS is a university sponsored and supported association that makes it possible for postdocs to participate in numerous social and career development opportunities, the organization is not an alternative to a union.

CUPS can make recommendations to the administration on behalf of postdocs and researchers but cannot serve as a representative in bargaining collectively as equals with the Columbia University administration over wages, benefits, and the terms and conditions of employment to reach a binding contract. CUPS can – and does – give input on improving the postdoc experience, but their input is not as powerful or potentially binding as a union’s would be.

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Why a union instead of an advocacy organization?

Only a union with collective bargaining rights has the power to negotiate a binding contract with an employer as equals. With a union, postdocs elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the Columbia University Administration for improvements. The postdoc union at the University of California (UAW Local 5810) has used their collective bargaining rights to improve their wages, guarantee annual wage increases, secure paid parental leave, improve job security through longer appointments, improve protections from discrimination and sexual harassment, secure career development support, and more. Without collective bargaining, the university has unilateral power to change our working conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements.

Additionally, as more postdocs form unions, like at the University of Washington, we will have a stronger voice to advocate on broader issues such as increasing public investment in research, better visa and immigration policies for international postdocs, and better working conditions for all researchers.

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Columbia just raised the minimum salary for postdocs. Why do we need a union?

It is important to note that this decision originated outside the University. While Columbia made the laudable decision to implement the Department of Labor standards that the raise is based on, it was the UAW who helped lead the charge to ensure that postdocs would be included in the final standard.

Despite Columbia’s implementation of this new salary minimum, no organization is responsible for ensuring that all departments have complied with the new salaries and that each postdoc is being paid the required salary. A postdoc union would be able to ensure that every postdoc is being paid at the correct rate and would also have a structure in place to address any grievances arising from underpayment.

In addition, a postdoc union could bargain for guaranteed annual wage increases and much more than wage increases. Unions typically bargain for contractually-guaranteed benefits and protections such as paid parental leave, childcare, job security, protection from discrimination, career development support, protection from sexual harassment, and more.

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If we decide to form a union, who has the final say in what happens?

Columbia postdoctoral researchers will make up the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers union. Once we win recognition for CPW-UAW, we will do the following to prepare for and engage in the process of negotiating a contract with Columbia:

  • elect a bargaining committee from among Columbia researchers.
  • based on surveys, the committee will develop initial bargaining proposals; before bargaining commences, we, postdocs and research scientists will vote to ratify these goals;
  • the committee will meet with university representatives to negotiate in pursuit of our bargaining goals;
  • when our committee has negotiated a tentative agreement with the University they feel they can recommend, researchers will vote whether to ratify it as our first contract;
  • the bargaining committee will be aided throughout by experienced negotiators from the local union and our regional UAW representatives;
  • after the contract is ratified, the membership will elect representatives who help run the Union and help members with any problems they have in the workplace
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Will international postdocs benefit from joining the UAW?

Arguably the UAW has done more than any other organization nationwide to improve conditions for international students and scholars. For years UAW has fought hard to ensure that the contributions of guest workers are elevated and that the terms and conditions of their employment are improved. The UAW 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 helped lead the fight 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 administrations 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.

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What are the rights of international postdocs to join the union?

International postdocs and researchers have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens. International employees have been instrumental in organizing and running the University of California postdocs union (UAW Local 5810) and the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2210) Unionization can result in protections that are especially valuable for international academic employees.

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What are union dues, fair share fee, and initiation fee amounts and when would we start paying?

We would pay dues/fees only after a democratic vote by postdoctoral researchers approving our first contract. Dues are critical for providing us with independent resources that are not controlled by the University: we use them to ensure we have appropriate legal, bargaining, community and staff support to represent all postdoctoral researchers. UAW membership dues are currently 1.44% of gross income and can only be increased by membership action (the membership in a few local unions, for example, have voted to increase dues above 1.44% to have more resources).

No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. In most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive 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. The inclusion of a similar provision at Columbia would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda, would be subject to negotiation with Columbia, and contingent on ratification as part of our contract.

Most academic worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to fight for the best possible contracts with the administration. Under the UAW, there is a one-time initiation fee, which ranges from $10 to $50 and is determined democratically in local union bylaws approved by members.

The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues, often leading to overwhelming majority approval of those agreements. For example, the base wages for UC postdocs have gone up an average of 25% since they ratified their first contract in 2010.  At the University of Connecticut, graduate assistants won an average annual total compensation increase of nearly 7% in their first contract.

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Where would our union dues go?

It takes resources to have a strong union, from the earliest stages of forming a union for the first time, to bargaining and campaigning for the first contract, to enforcing rights under an existing contract, and advocating on policy issues that matter to membership.  Dues provide those resources.  See below for more information.  

Dues generally cover all of the day to day cost of having a strong union, including paying for the best legal representation, staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies.  

Most of the day-to-day work enforcing the contract and representing our membership is provided by the Local Union.  The Local Union automatically keeps 27% of dues money to support its expenses: staffing for representation, rent, equipment, supplies, etc.  The rest of the dues is allocated to the International Union’s General Fund (26%), Strike and Defense Fund (44%), and Community Action Program (CAP) (3%).  Columbia postdocs would be supported by these funds as described below.  Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if its net worth is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union.  So, in typical months, the portion of dues retained by the local union is roughly 37%.

For a great example of local union work helping workers defend their rights, see this summary of successful grievance handling at the University of Washington, or this story about how the union at UConn has helped graduate assistants take on sexual harassment.  

The portion of dues allocated to the International Union would support Columbia postdoctoral researchers in the following ways:

  • Technical experts to help negotiate on equal terms with Columbia:
    • Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
    • Researchers who can help analyze University finances.
    • Legal advice where necessary
    • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall campaign to win a strong contract
  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the resources supporting Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW come from existing UAW members’ dues money)
  • Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]
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Will we have to strike?

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.

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My PI does not have a lot of money. Will a union hurt our PIs or lead to fewer postdoc positions?

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.

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Does everyone in a union have to make the same amount?

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:

1) A minimum salary that exceeds the NIH base wage;

2) Guaranteed annual wage increases;

3) The right of PIs to pay above the scale; and

4) Strong enforcement provisions that enable us to grieve through the union if we don’t receive contractual pay increases.

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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.

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Would I be included in the postdoc union?

Columbia Postdoctoral Workers aims to represent anyone who holds a postdoctoral position or is classified as an Associate Research Scientist. Postdocs at Columbia are typically classified into three main job titles: Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Research Fellow, or an Associate Research Scientist. The union would include all Columbia University employees who fall under these job titles as well as other titles that are determined to fit our unit definition.

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