Be Informed on Postdoc Unionization at Mount Sinai
What Sinai Says
What Sinai Leaves Out
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers Concerning the United Auto Workers Union and Collective Bargaining
We hope every postdoc colleague makes an informed decision and votes in our historic upcoming NLRB election. We agree with Deans Nestler and Filizola on the spirit of transparency and the importance of facts, but it is disappointing to see them disseminate “questions and answers” that seem increasingly aimed at convincing postdocs to vote against collective bargaining. We have put together some crucial information left out of Sinai’s latest questions and answers document.
Sinai’s “questions and answers” leave out a basic factual description of the choices on the ballot. We can vote yes for SPOC-UAW as our union, which would mean for the first time ever the Sinai administration would be legally obligated to bargain with elected postdoc representatives over pay, benefits and workplace rights, as 100,000 other UAW academic workers across the United States do with their institutions. Or we can vote no and retain the status quo where Sinai decides by itself if, when, and how to consider input from postdocs and makes all final decisions on our workplace rights, a system that has left us with a stagnant minimum salary rate for the last three years.
If you have additional questions:
-Speak with your PI or department/institute administrator
1. What does it mean for the United Auto Workers Union to be my exclusive bargaining representative? How does this affect me?
If you are represented by a union, such as the United Auto Workers, your “terms and conditions of employment”—including wages, benefits, hours of work, and other items related to your work and compensation—must be negotiated between the School and your union, and formally outlined in a labor contract.
By law, the School is prohibited from bypassing a union and dealing directly with union-represented postdocs in connection with any terms and conditions of their employment. For example, if a PI wants to increase compensation, currently they have that freedom. With a union in place, all compensation changes might need to be negotiated with the union before they can occur, depending upon the terms of the final collective bargaining agreement (see question 2).
Nearly all unions require their members to pay dues, which are the unions’ primary source of income. At other academic institutions, the United Auto Workers union has negotiated a requirement that all postdocs pay union dues or an equivalent fee, regardless of their support for the union (see question 10).
Sinai currently holds exclusive, unilateral control over our pay, benefits and workplace rights. Like most employers, they would probably prefer to retain that power.
Collective bargaining, on the other hand, is a process, protected by US law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. The UAW currently represents 100,000 academic workers in collective bargaining at institutions across the US.
Under collective bargaining, Mount Sinai postdoctoral researchers would elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the Sinai administration and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, postdocs and other academic workers in the UAW have successfully negotiated improved wages and benefits, stronger protections against discrimination and harassment, expanded family-friendly benefits like paid leave and childcare subsidies or funds, retirement, and other important provisions.
With unilateral control over our pay, Sinai has not raised minimum salaries in three years, despite significant increases in the cost of living. With collective bargaining, Sinai would be legally obligated to negotiate salary rates with our elected bargaining team and we would vote democratically on the results of those negotiations.
Collective bargaining also allows for flexibility in areas we decide are appropriate. As an example, all UAW postdoc contracts preserve the right of individual PIs and postdocs to work out salary rates higher than the minimums negotiated in collective bargaining - see examples from Columbia University (Art. 2), University of Washington (Art. 32), and University of California (Art. 4).
2. How are contracts negotiated?
Representatives from the School and the union (“bargaining teams”) meet to negotiate the terms of an agreement. During these negotiations, both sides discuss contract-related issues and present proposals and counter-proposals. Federal law requires that both sides engage in good-faith negotiations to try to resolve any differences and work to reach an agreement in a timely manner. But there is no legal requirement to reach an agreement, for the School to agree to all the union demands, or for the United Auto Workers to agree to all the School’s demands.
After our union is formed, we will elect a bargaining committee made up of Mount Sinai postdocs, who will use surveys and other feedback to develop an initial set of bargaining goals to be voted on by all Sinai postdocs. Our bargaining committee would then negotiate with a group chosen by the Sinai administration to represent them, typically a combination of administrators, legal counsel, and faculty, in pursuit of those goals.
During our negotiations, we would develop a participatory campaign to support our bargaining committee in achieving improvements at the bargaining table. Once our committee reaches a tentative agreement they feel they can recommend, we would vote on whether to approve it as our first contract.
It is true that there is no legal requirement that Sinai reach an agreement, but if they respect postdocs and bargain in good faith, we are confident we will reach a fair agreement similar to the 100,000 other UAW academic workers across the US.
3. How long does it take to negotiate a labor contract?
There is no way to predict this. Contract negotiations can last for weeks or months; in some cases, especially for a union’s first contract with an employer, negotiations have taken 18 to 24 months to complete. Again, there is no legal requirement that the two sides reach an agreement, or that the agreement include what the union has promised to gain the postdocs’ vote.
Without a union, we have no ability to predict how long it will take for working conditions to improve because Sinai can decide unilaterally whether to make changes, what they will be, and whether to notify us beforehand. After we vote yes for our union, they will be legally obligated to bargain these decisions.
The length of time necessary to negotiate a strong first contract has depended on the strength of the campaign and the willingness of the employer to bargain in good faith. For example, Sinai could help ensure a timely process by agreeing on a fair and efficient timeframe with regularly scheduled bargaining sessions and a strong commitment to reaching a fair agreement.
At other major research institutions where postdocs have formed unions, researchers have been able to negotiate significant improvements despite facing opposition from their employers. Postdocs at Columbia University, University of Connecticut, University of Washington, and University of California negotiated for 16 months, 13 months, 13 months, and 18 months respectively. But it is also possible to negotiate much more quickly. For example, with a serious commitment to reach a fair agreement by the administration, 4,000 student employees at the University of Washington negotiated their first contract in just under two months. After three years with no increase to the minimum salary, we hope Sinai would commit to an efficient process.
4. What happens while the vote is pending and, if the union wins the vote, while the contract is being negotiated?
Employers have a legal duty to bargain in good faith with their employees' representative and to sign any collective bargaining agreement that has been reached. This duty encompasses many obligations, including a duty not to make certain changes without bargaining with the union and not to bypass the union and deal directly with employees it represents.
Sinai has a legal obligation to maintain the status quo in the period between our filing and the election because making changes could be viewed as (and may, in fact, be) an illegal inducement to vote a certain way. However, maintaining the status quo doesn’t mean ceasing all raises, promotions, or improvements. Where a raise or benefit is regular or expected, not paying that raise or benefit during this period could be viewed as a reprisal by the employer. This also goes for situations in which an individual postdoc has been discussing a raise or promotion for some time predating the period after filing and prior to an election.
In previous campaigns, such as Columbia, planned raises and/or promotions continued before and during bargaining. Anyone who has an individual situation where this was planned and is being denied, please contact us so we can help resolve the situation.
5. If I signed an authorization card, am I automatically a member of the union?
This one is half correct. Signing an authorization card is not the same as membership. At this point, it means you support authorizing our union, Sinai Postdoctoral Organizing Committee-UAW (SPOC-UAW), to represent us in bargaining collectively with our employer. As Postdocs, we make up SPOC-UAW.
No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. For information on dues and fees, see our response to question 10. below.
6. What’s the difference between being a union “member” and just being “represented”?
Becoming a member of the United Auto Workers and the required payment of dues are separate processes. The United Auto Workers union may bargain away certain things to get the School to agree to make membership and the payment of union dues a condition of your continued employment. Only members get to vote on the contract and be involved in union politics.
Without collective bargaining, Sinai has exclusive unilateral control over all of our workplace rights. If a majority of voting postdocs choose SPOC-UAW in our election, we would all have the right to participate in the democratic process of collective bargaining through SPOC-UAW. Saying that unionization means being “required to turn their workplace rights over to the union,” makes it seem as if Sinai is not involved in collective bargaining. If this were true, we would likely have a contract in one or two days after the union is certified. But we will have to negotiate with Sinai to reach an agreement because that is what collective bargaining means.
If postdocs vote yes and the union is certified, we encourage all postdocs to participate in the collective bargaining process and the campaign to win a fair agreement that makes our lives better as postdocs. There is no formal membership or dues until we vote to ratify a first contract. During the process leading to a first contract, anyone can sign a SPOC-UAW card, at no cost, and participate in the process. And signing a SPOC-UAW authorization card does not bind anyone to be a union member later on.
After SPOC-UAW has been recognized by Mount Sinai, we will start the process of negotiating a contract with the administration - see our response to question 2. above for details or visit our website FAQ.
7. If I signed an authorization card, do I have to vote in favor of the union? Or can I vote NO in the secret ballot election?
Whether you signed a card or did not sign a card before, every postdoc has the right to vote yes or no in this election. Based on their communications so far, it is very clear that Sinai would prefer that we vote no. But a strong majority - over 80% - of us signed SPOC-UAW authorization cards. SPOC-UAW encourages all postdocs to vote and a big “yes” vote will help us to negotiate stronger improvements in collective bargaining.
8. How are the election results decided?
This is how most elections work in the US. SPOC-UAW encourages all postdocs to vote.
80% of postdocs have already signed up in support of SPOC-UAW as our union and participated in an initial survey to shape our collective priorities. Sinai appears to want us to vote no because when a majority votes yes, they will have a legal obligation to bargain with us for the first time.
A strong majority of postdocs voting yes will establish a strong voice going into bargaining.
9. Must a minimum percentage of eligible voters vote to make the outcome valid?
Just like a US presidential election, you cannot opt out by not voting. SPOC-UAW encourages all postdocs to vote.
In this context, a yes vote would make the union the “exclusive bargaining representative” meaning an obligation to represent all postdocs equally regardless of how they voted and, more importantly, that all postdocs would receive the improvements under a contract once ratified. So, any pay increases, improved health benefits and other rights and protections, as have been negotiated at other universities, would be available to all regardless of how they voted. The institute would probably prefer if the Union did not represent all postdocs, because speaking with a unified voice gives us more power.
It is important for a strong majority of postdocs to vote yes, so we can have the power to win a strong first contract as we go into bargaining.
10. How is the amount of union dues established, and who is responsible to pay this?
The union determines the amount of dues and fees and would be able to inform you about their current dues structure. You will be responsible for your own dues; the School will not pay these.
The United Auto Workers union at other academic institutions has made sure that it receives its dues or equivalent fees, regardless of whether there are any true gains by the postdocs. Taken together, Mount Sinai postdocs would be worth more than half a million dollars a year to the union in additional revenue.
The administration wants us to believe that dues will be “forced” on us without our consent. In fact, we only begin to pay dues once we have elected a bargaining committee, negotiated our first contact, and voted democratically to approve that contract. Voting yes to the contract would mean we believe it is “worth” the investment of paying dues to sustain our representation and to enforce our rights under our contract moving forward. Dues provide critical resources to be able to represent ourselves long term. For examples of the kinds of effective representation and action made possible with membership dues, read this great summary from UAW 4121 at University of Washington.
For more details on union dues and a breakdown of where dues money goes, check out our FAQ.
11. Will I have a say on what will be negotiated and the ultimate agreement?
Once an agreement is reached, union members would be asked to vote on whether to ratify its terms.
Yes. In contrast to the current system, where Sinai decides if, when, and how to ask for or respond to input from postdocs, voting “yes” means we would participate in every step of the fair and democratic process of collective bargaining. SPOC-UAW encourages maximum participation so that we have both a strong and democratic union. See description of the process in the answer to question 2.
Unions are democratic organizations. In April 2021, the unionized teaching and research assistants at Columbia (UAW Local 2710) voted not to ratify an agreement negotiated by their bargaining committee, made up of student workers, as their first contract and to continue bargaining. Subsequently, student workers developed an updated bargaining survey and actively reached out to colleagues to identify areas where improvement was needed. A stronger and more expansive agreement was reached and ratified by an overwhelming 97.6% in January 2022.
The base wages for UC postdocs have gone up an average of 45% since they ratified their first contract in 2010 as a result of collective bargaining.
13. In the case of a strike, would my visa status be affected in any way?
More than 10,000 postdoctoral and professional researchers in the UAW (at Columbia University, University of CA, University of WA, University of Connecticut, UMass) have negotiated strong contracts with significant improvements without having to strike. If Sinai commits to bargain in good faith, we should also be able to reach a fair agreement without striking. As these cases show, there are many ways to generate an effective contract campaign that wins improvements that do not involve calling an actual strike.
Nevertheless, postdocs on visas are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which provides the right to strike. This right is clearly described in the reference provided by the Deans. International academic workers – including some on J1 visas – have participated in strikes going back to the 1990s without any reported repercussions to visa status. J1 workers in other sectors, such as school teachers, have also participated in recent strikes. It’s important to also remember several things: strike action is rare; strikes only happen if workers decide democratically to call a strike, with a ⅔ majority vote; and participation in a strike, if one is called, is an individual decision.
14. Will our salaries be reduced to a flat uniform scale?
Currently, Sinai has a centralized decision-making process on minimum salaries that is totally unpredictable, because Sinai decides unilaterally if, when and by how much to increase it. With collective bargaining we negotiate those types of decisions.
No academic workers with the UAW have negotiated a contract that requires all covered employees to make the same amount. 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.
Instead, UAW academic contracts have established minimum rights on different aspects of researcher working conditions, while preserving the ability of PIs and postdocs to negotiate above those minimums. At Columbia University, for example, postdocs negotiated pay scales that guarantee minimum salaries but stipulate that the institution may pay more.
15. Will I lose my current health benefits or will these change?
Columbia Postdoctoral Workers, UAW Local 4100 negotiated and won the highest minimum salaries for postdocs in NYC in the first year of their contract, with increases to their previous minimums ranging from 14.5-20%. Postdocs at the University of California bargained a contract that includes: