98% of postdoctoral and associate researchers organized through CPW-UAW 4100 (Columbia Postdoctoral Workers Union) voted yes last week to authorize a strike. They’re on the edge of joining a growing movement of academic workers across the country who have taken strike action to demand better pay and conditions in the workplace. More than 40,000 workers at the University of California struck last fall and they were soon after joined by strikers closer to home at Rutgers University and The New School. The vote at Columbia closely followed a strike authorization vote among postdocs at Mt. Sinai which was approved by 91%, representing a deeper battle in academia.
The Postdoc Life
Postdoctoral and associate researchers work in a wide range of areas from cancer treatments to environmental research, leading the way for biomedical and technological advances. In 2020 when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic, Columbia researchers offered up their scientific and medical skills to help our city through the toughest parts of the crisis. While the majority of the city was locked down and wealthy New Yorkers were fleeing to the Hamptons, Columbia researchers were carrying out necessary work from drug and vaccine research to connecting doctors and nurses with PPE and diagnostic tests.
Despite the essential skills these researchers have gained through years of education and experience they are still being overworked and underpaid especially when compared with workers in related fields outside of academia. The power that Columbia has over its workforce is highlighted by the 60% of postdocs who are working in the U.S. on international visas. International researchers are more reliant on the university to maintain their status in the U.S. opening up more space for mistreatment in the workplace.
CPW and The Fight for a New Contract
New York City history was made by Columbia workers in 2018 when they won the first postdoctoral union in the city and the first union of its kind in any private American university. Another year and a half of struggle in the bargaining process secured them their first contract which set new salary minimums, increased access to childcare benefits, and won a new grievance procedure. The new heights that the cost of living has reached over the past five years mean that these important victories no longer meet people’s needs. Not only has inflation devalued the salary gains of the last contract, but average monthly rent prices in Manhattan hit an all time high of $5,588 this July.
Their new demands include a $75,000 minimum salary to gain back their previous standard of living as well as to catch up to postdocs across the country. The experience of their old contract being devalued by inflation shows the need to push back against static minimums. That’s why they’re also fighting for COLA (Cost of Living Adjustments) tied to the rate of inflation. Alongside this demand for better pay for highly skilled work come demands for more significant child care support, housing stipends, and full employment status and benefits for researchers receiving salary for an outside agency or foundation (fellows).
Columbia has enormous financial resources to be able to meet these demands, but despite months of bargaining they refuse to budge on the necessary contract points. The administration has been hid behind the fact that postdocs and associate researchers are paid out of grant money. In reality, the university could use some of their billions of dollars to pay researchers directly. The vote for strike authorization demonstrates a refusal to accept worsening conditions and instead a drive to fight back using the tactics of the working class and in doing so join the hundreds of thousands of workers across the US who have taken strike action this year.
Solidarity Needed Against the King of the Gentrifiers
This struggle is up against an institution with one of the largest academic endowments in the country at $13.3 billion as of last year. This kind of money could not possibly come solely from underpaying their staff. Aside from pocketing a large percentage of federal research grants funded by working people’s taxes, they also bring in a ton of revenue through the 200 properties they own across the city. Out of these properties, 150 are residential for a total of more than 5,000 apartment units. At a time when the cost of living in the city is squeezing out so many long term residents it’s clear that New York can no longer continue to let these institutions gut our homes for their profits while chewing up their own workers in the process.
To win, it’s going to be necessary to mobilize the wider working class directly into the struggle. When academic workers went on strike in California, Teamsters refused to cross the picket lines and make deliveries. At Temple University in Philadelphia, Socialist Alternative and Workers Strike Back helped organize a 1,000 student walkout in solidarity with the strike there. These tactics helped disrupt business-as-usual on campus, which is necessary to avoid a prolonged stalemate. The “one day longer, one day stronger” tactic of trying to wait out the boss rarely works because the bosses have more resources to starve out a strike. Mass rallies, student walkouts and labor solidarity combined with solid picket lines that disrupt business as usual can maximize the pressure on Columbia admins, and increase the chances of the strike winning its initial demands as quickly as possible.
Columbia employs more than 20,000 people, has annual revenues in the billions, and is the largest private landowner in the city, but they will not guarantee their own workers a reasonable standard of living. Researchers carrying out critical work are forced to spend their time battling for a living wage while some executive positions at the same workplace are paid salaries upwards of $3,000,000! The fight of Columbia postdocs to win concessions from their bosses is all of our fight when it comes to this ultra wealthy institution. That’s a part of the reason why Workers Strike Back has been and will continue to be involved in organizing community solidarity for postdoc workers and why New Yorkers at large should be supporting their fight!