Xu, who is researching how cells in the brain respond to influenza, said she and her peers started discussing unionization about a year ago due to frustration with the administration’s slow response to the housing and salary issues that they had raised.
Salaries sat largely stagnant, at $58,000, Xu said. Postdocs said they lacked the child care benefits afforded to faculty and staff. And a rule that limits postdoc housing to the first three years of their employment—even though many stay in the role for five—meant that some were forced to leave their home.
“It became clear a lot of people were very unhappy with the current situation at Sinai,” Xu said.
There are indications that postdoc unions are on the rise. The National Labor Relations Board has historically flip-flopped on the issue of whether graduate-student workers are eligible to unionize, depending on whether the board is Democratic- or Republican-controlled. Last year the board withdrew a proposed rule that would have barred student workers from unionizing by declaring them to not be “employees” in the eyes of federal labor law.
In a statement posted Friday on social media, the New York City Postdoc Coalition, an association that connects postdocs at seven institutions in the city, wrote, “We are aware that there is a growing discussion among fellow postdocs across NYC institutions on whether to form a union.”
The coalition urged university administrations to “remain neutral and refrain from using misinformation, intimidation and retaliatory actions that interfere with postdocs’ right to choose.” It did not name any specific institution.
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Xu, other members of the Sinai Postdoctoral Organizing Committee–UAW and faculty say Mount Sinai has sent anti-union email to faculty and postdocs, asked faculty to talk postdocs out of forming a union and prevented their committee from posting to a postdoc community listserv.
Mount Sinai spokeswoman Lucia Lee contested that characterization. She said faculty and postdocs were provided with answers to frequently asked questions. The referenced listserv, she said, is devoted to non-work-related matters and was not an appropriate forum for postdoc union organizers to use.
“The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai respects the rights of postdoctoral fellows to organize and will ensure a fair process,” Lee said in a statement. “We remain committed to an enriched learning environment that provides innovative teaching, mentoring and career opportunities for our diverse scientific community.”
A copy of the aforementioned document, which was sent to faculty in May and reviewed by Crain’s by way of a third party, is labeled “Talking Points.” One of the “key messages,” it says, is, “If the union were elected, our direct relationship with our postdocs would fundamentally change,” adding that unionization would “significantly constrain” the relationship between principal investigators and their postdocs.
The three-page document, which is unsigned, also notes that the United Auto Workers might require all postdocs to pay union dues, which could run each of them as much as $1,000 per year, and that changes to wages and benefits are not guaranteed.
“At the end of bargaining, postdocs may get the same, more, or even less,” the letter says.
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If Mount Sinai’s postdocs succeed in unionizing, they will follow in the footsteps of their Columbia University peers, who voted in 2018 to unionize with the UAW—becoming the nation’s first postdoc union at a private university. They secured their first contract in 2020.
“Two years ago, we formed a union to push back against being overworked and underpaid,” members of the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers Union Organizing Committee wrote in a blog post in 2020, before they had reached a contract.
“This isn’t just about us,” they added in the post. “Because we are the first postdoc union in the U.S. to negotiate a contract with a private university, we are setting precedents that will impact academic workers for decades to come.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's New York Business.