Dear Columbia Faculty,

We are the postdocs and associate researchers that work in Columbia’s labs and research groups learning to conduct independent research by writing and reviewing grants, authoring papers and mentoring students, among other duties. Together, our union, the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers, represents more than 1600 of us throughout the University. We are writing to give you a first-hand account of our contract negotiations, explain our rationale for institutional support rather than passing on the cost to individual PI grants, and suggest ways to support and advocate for us to the administration in order to avoid a strike.

We acknowledge that grants and awards have not kept pace with inflation and living costs in recent years. In preparation for our negotiations, we commissioned a financial analysis (you can find the report here). Our overarching goal is for the university to start using the proceeds from its considerable reserves to support and invest in research and alleviate some of the burden of the rising cost of living away from grant money. Please read this letter of support circulated by some of your colleagues, and take a moment to add your name and to discuss our need for support with our department chairs and Deans.

While some progress has been made at the bargaining table and we have settled on most issues, the administration, while it doesn’t deny the availability of funds, insists on maintaining the current funding structure so that any gains from our contract negotiations will be taken from research budgets. We need your support in order to change this model.

These are the key aspects that are paramount to us:

  • Fair minimum salaries and yearly raises – Adjusting for inflation, our current minimum postdoc salary should be around $71,000. Their last offer was $65,000, which is effectively a pay cut.  We cannot accept anything less than an inflation adjustment. Following Rockefeller and Memorial Sloan Kettering earlier this summer, NYU Langone increased postdoc salaries to $70,000. Specifically we want Columbia to cover this increase using institutional funds like universities such as MIT and Princeton have done.  
  • Housing stipend – Columbia University is the only institution in New York City that does not provide guaranteed housing for all its postdocs. This situation places a significant financial burden on many of us, as we end up allocating an average of close to 50% of our salaries to cover rent. This is particularly challenging for international postdocs/ARSs who lack a credit history or local guarantors. We are requesting a housing stipend from central funds, something that certain departments in Columbia Engineering are already implementing.
  • Option for fellows to be classified as employees – when we win awards and fellowships we are currently classified as independent contractors, which comes with less favorable benefits and more challenging tax arrangements. Columbia’s current stance is that although they have the option to employ us in most cases, they prefer not to do so. Instead, they agreed to an additional $3,500, likely funded through research grants, to partially offset the disadvantages of our independent contractor status. 
  • Increased childcare support – We are requesting that our child care benefit is adjusted based on the number of children, similar to the graduate student contract, rather than a fixed amount of $5,000 which causes inequalities for families with more than one child; and that these funds come from Columbia directly, not grants. 
  • Commitment that the administration cannot modify our benefits without engaging in negotiations with us. Currently our contract allows for benefit changes as long as they remain similar to those of all other officers. This led to the suspension of retirement contributions in 2021 for all officers, even though the anticipated economic fallout did not materialize. We oppose the university’s ability to unilaterally decrease benefits, a fundamental part of our compensation, during the life of a contract.

You are undoubtedly aware of the current postdoc shortage in the US. We are witnessing how several of our colleagues are leaving Columbia reluctantly seeking the higher salaries of industry just because we are unable to cover basic necessities in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Diversity in academia is shrinking, with racial disparities broadening, social origins of postdocs narrowing, and women being forced to choose between becoming parents or advancing their career. 

We love the research we do at Columbia and work very hard to move it forward, but the situation is becoming unsustainable for us. This is why we voted overwhelmingly with 98% in favor of authorizing a strike if Columbia continues to refuse a fair contract for researchers. We want to be very clear: we don’t want to strike. Even after the dozens of hours spent pleading our case to the University where we showed countless pieces of evidence, surveys, and testimonials from our members, they continue to claim they can not offer more. While we don’t want to bring research to a halt, we are determined to do what we must to get a fair contract.

An overwhelming majority of our members think that Columbia’s current offer is not reasonable. Unless there is more institutional support to relieve research budgets, a key university core mission such as research, and the long-term viability of public research, are at risk. The future of academia at large is at stake. On our side, we will continue to fight for a dignified contract to ensure that all our members can not only survive, but thrive and continue to focus on what we all care deeply about: our research. 

Please, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or would like to discuss this or any other ways to support us. 

Yours sincerely, 

Columbia Postdoctoral Workers


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