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“Academia is in crisis, and it’s time for a change”: Interview with a Mount Sinai Hospital Postdoc

Mount Sinai hospital postdocs have voted by 91% to authorize a strike. Left Voice interviewed postdoctoral fellow Andrea Joseph about the union’s demands and the road ahead.

Raura Doreste

September 7, 2023
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Mount Sinai Hospital workers wear blue at a picket. Postdocs have overwhelmingly voted to strike.

Postdoctoral researchers at New York City’s Mount Sinai hospital voted by 91 percent to authorize a strike. Left Voice interviewed Andrea Joseph, a first-year Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences and member of the SPOC-UAW Bargaining Committee. Andrea spoke about how the negotiations are developing with the Mount Sinai administration, what the postdocs demands’ are for a strong contract, and what changes they expect to see from the administration. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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What triggered the strike authorization vote? 

The bargaining committee has been at the table with the Mount Sinai administration for almost a year since last October. Progress so far has been mixed; we have gotten some major wins on non-economic demands, like reasonable workloads and intellectual property rights. But there are still some non-economic things we are fighting for, including job security and protections against discrimination and harassment. But the major thing we’ve been bargaining for since pretty early in the negotiations is all of our economic demands: salary, housing, child care, paid leave (including parental leave), retirement, and health insurance, among others. What we are looking for is progress on all of these things, which would create a strong contract for postdoc researchers. If we don’t see progress soon on these demands, then what this strike authorization vote did is authorize the bargaining committee to call for a strike if the circumstances call for it. 

What are the main demands for this contract? 

Like I mentioned, we are thinking about the whole contract as a package of non-economic and economic demands. For us, a strong contract would include protections against discrimination and harassment, and just-cause protections so postdocs cannot have their appointments terminated unless a specific set of circumstances apply. Right now, postdocs are able to be terminated for no reason at all with no notice. 

We also have not received a raise to the minimum postdoc salary since 2018, so we are asking for increased salaries that have built-in adjustments for years of experience and annual cost of living increases. Housing is a major demand that is important to our postdocs. Currently our housing benefits expire after three years, so in the middle of someone’s postdoc they get evicted. And they will have to have the same salary but find housing, and we know how high housing prices are in New York. So, extending the housing benefits is an important demand. We don’t currently have paid parental leave, so this is another demand of ours. These are all benefits that would create more secure working conditions and economic protections that allow us to focus on our research. That is the important thing here — winning these demands would help us all by removing significant sources of stress in our lives. 

How has the Mount Sinai administration responded to the unresolved demands, and what changes do you expect to see from them? 

In general, I would characterize the administration’s pace as very slow. Since October, they have only met with the bargaining committee for the equivalent of half a workday per month, so just two two-hour sessions per month and that’s really not enough to reach the kind of negotiations and agreements that we are working towards. I mean, we are all volunteering, working off hours to be on the bargaining committee. And it feels like their pace is not matching what we are able to give and the progress we want to see. We did have a bargaining session [on August 29], so that was the first session after the result of the strike authorization vote. And in that session, we did see more significant movement than we have seen recently, like the strong intellectual property protections. And so I think that they might be responsive to the message that is coming through loud and clear from postdocs; but we are certainly looking for an increased pace and more movement across many of our proposals.

What are the intellectual property demands?

Our intellectual property demand is super strong. Postdocs have now secured intellectual property rights over any manuscript that they have written or contributed to. Even after they leave the lab, their advisor can’t say “you are not in the lab anymore so I am not going to put you on this paper.” It’s pretty awesome to have those authorship rights. 

We also have Principal Investigator (PI) credit rights to any grant for which we are the main contributor. There are a bunch of criteria in this approval process that postdocs would have to go through, but once they have been met, their advisor can’t remove that credit later down the road, which is something we have seen happen to postdocs here at Mount Sinai. Even more importantly, that right is grievable, which is something that we have been fighting for for a while. In other words, postdocs can go through the grievance and arbitration process in the event that a PI has promised “PIship” credit and then taken it away right before submission or something like that. We will also have the university cover open-access publication fees to increase transparency and accessibility in science, which I hadn’t seen before and I think it’s pretty awesome. 

How would having a strong contract help international postdocs for whom it can be very hard to get visas with only one-year contracts? 

That’s such an important question. Eighty percent of our postdocs are international, so this is a huge issue on our minds as we organize and bargain for a strong contract. We do have demands that are specifically focused on issues affecting international researchers. One of our economic proposals is regarding the financial expenses of visa renewals. We propose that Mount Sinai should be responsible for the financial cost of traveling to your home country for visa renewal, the cost of the visa itself, and any costs associated with paperwork problems, delays, or legal expenses. All of those protections would be a significant benefit for international researchers. What we have seen at other postdoc unions across the country is benefits like guaranteed time off for visa renewal appointments and a specific hardship fund for international postdocs. So, these are the kind of things that influenced the proposals we were making and the kind of benefits we want our international postdocs to have. 

In what ways has the Mount Sinai administration tried to discourage a strike? 

On August 7, Dean Eric Nestler sent an email to all postdocs at the School of Medicine saying what the consequences of a postdoc strike may be, including a specific line that seems targeted to international workers. He said that, “holders of certain visa classifications may be affected in the event of a strike.” And that was understood by many of our international postdocs to have a chilling effect as a threat from the university. In response, we filed an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and we are educating international postdocs about their legal right to strike. Of course, none of us postdocs, whether international or not, want to go on strike — we want to do research and focus on having a successful postdoc. But, you know, we are also prepared to go on strike if needed. 

Have you been in discussions with other sectors of the workers, like the nurses who recently were on strike, or medical residents? 

We have spent the last week handing out flyers to members of the community in front of the campus. One of the people we talked to was an organizer in the nurses union, NYSNA, so we are certainly planning on coordinating with them. We looked at both the NYSNA and residents’ union contracts as inspiration for writing some protections we can secure in our contract and we had discussions about specific demands with both unions. And we are looking forward to coordinating more as this campaign escalates. 

How has Mount Sinai’s refusal to concede the demands in the contract harmed workers, as well as the communities that benefit from the hospital’s healthcare and the research? 

It’s really hard. Postdocs are looking at how Mount Sinai is treating them and I hear from postdocs that it feels disrespectful, like they don’t value their researchers. So I think that’s how the postdocs are feeling. The effects for the community can be highly disruptive. Postdocs run research laboratories in every part of Mount Sinai: There are postdocs who interact with patients, there are postdocs who run core facilities that many other laboratories are using, there are postdocs that maintain mouse colonies and cell lines that are used for important research studies that really drive the future of patient care at this hospital. Mount Sinai’s refusal to bargain at an acceptable pace and an eventual postdoc strike, wouldn’t just be bad for postdocs — it would be bad for the Mount Sinai community and the broader community here. 

The hospital advertises itself as a nonprofit hospital and educational institution. It seems very contradictory of them to refuse to negotiate a fair contract. 

Exactly. I did not even mention the roles that postdocs have in mentoring and training graduate students and writing papers and grants that fund these research laboratories and keep up the prestige of Mount Sinai’s world-class research. Postdocs are in every part of Mount Sinai’s research program. 

What would you say to other postdocs that are organizing? 

Keep going. It’s so worth it. I think every step is so different from the next. There are more and more challenges that come up, but it also gets more and more rewarding. And we are all in this together. We are more powerful when we are together. Academia is in crisis and has been for a decade or so, and it’s time for change. I think the change should be led by labor unions. 

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