No raise in four years, eviction after two: Sinai postdocs unionize with UAW
Sinai postdocs celebrate their union victory. Next up: contract negotiations. | @spocuaw via Twitter

NEW YORK—No raises in four years, no fixed hours, being kicked out of postdoctoral housing after two years, lack of benefits, and uncertain futures were among the issues that pushed postdoctoral researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine to vote 317-37 on June 22-23 to unionize with the United Auto Workers.

“For us, we don’t really have fixed hours,” Neurology postdoc Pooja Viswanathan told People’s World in a telephone interview on June 27. “We wind up working a lot more than we should.”

And that’s just one issue that led 89.5% of the postdocs, who conduct a huge amount of the medical research at Sinai—even though their mentors are the official authors of the studies—to go union with the Sinai Postdoctoral Organizing Committee-United Auto Workers.

Neurology postdoc Pooja Viswanathan.

The union will represent more than 500 postdocs, and Sinai has not challenged the vote. It will be the second postdoctoral researchers union at a private university in the U.S. The UAW recently won among 17,000 researchers at the public University of California system and now represents more than 100,000 academics nationwide.

“The big things for us were stagnant wages and that there wasn’t a lot of support” from management “during the pandemic,” said Viswanathan. “There was also a lack of family benefits,” which made it tough to both do their jobs and raise kids.

And while postdoctoral contracts often depend on multiyear federal grants—in Sinai’s case mostly from the federal National Institutes of Health—postdoc housing contracts last only two years. Then the postdocs “have to go out on the market” to find housing in high-cost New York City, on pay that hasn’t risen since 2018.

The result is “an effective pay cut.” And that’s for postdocs who do a lot of the grant-writing applications, too. Grant denials may mean no jobs the following year.

The minimum is $58,000, Viswanathan added, but some postdocs get more, depending on either the decisions of their mentors/sponsors or if they can convince private foundations to pay for their research, as Viswanathan has. But international postdocs are ineligible for the NIH money. And all the postdocs do most of the research.

“It’s chancy, and that’s one of the problems we hope to highlight—the structure of science,” once bargaining begins, says Viswanathan.

Before they decided to unionize, several groups of postdocs approached management on their own about issues that later led the entire group to go UAW. Management brushed them off.

“We didn’t have a say, so that’s why we organized,” Viswanathan said. “This is the only way to go forward.”

Management didn’t hire union-busters, “but tried to discourage us,” added Viswanathan. The international postdocs—whose status will also be a key issue in bargaining—faced further restrictions on their U.S. visas, essentially pinning them to Sinai.

Now that they’ve won the vote, and after formal National Labor Relations Board recognition, both Viswanathan and Environmental Medicine and Public Health Postdoc Elza Rechtman say the “next step will be to democratically prioritize the changes we plan to bargain for.” Rechtman was a lead organizer for the union.

“We are so energized by this vote,” Yajing Xu, Neuroscience Postdoctoral Researcher told UAW. “As hard as we worked to win, we know that this is just the beginning. We are confident our union will be good for us and good for Mount Sinai, and we look forward to meeting them at the table soon to bargain a contract that makes us all stronger.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.