Researchers unions might be new at NYU, but they’re nothing new in American academia

While NYU’s researchers union has yet to be recognized, many universities across the country have already recognized similar groups on their campuses for years.

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Researchers unions might be new at NYU, but they’re nothing new in American academia

While NYU’s researchers union has yet to be recognized, many universities across the country have already recognized similar groups on their campuses for years.

People are kneeling and standing on blue carpeting inside of Bobst Library, holding blue-and-white signs that read “U.A.W.” There is a white banner behind them that reads “N.Y.U. Researchers United-U.A.W.,” and a sign held by a woman sitting in the front that reads, ‘N.Y.U. Contract Faculty Stand in Solidarity!’

(Shiphrah Moses for WSN)

Shiphrah Moses, Identity & Equity Editor | Feb. 11, 2024

Last year, NYU Researchers United — the union representing over 4,000 researchers at the university — called for official union recognition in a letter delivered to university president Linda Mills. In the letter, union members called for “higher wages, stronger benefits, expanded access to housing, additional support for parents and international scholars, and a fair grievance process.” NYU denied the group’s request. 

NYU has since denied the group’s request, prompting the researchers union to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for recognition. The university has argued that the term “researcher” is too vague for the group to be represented under the same union. It has also said that the union cannot be recognized because its members span across schools that don’t have labor agreements with NYU, such as the College of Dentistry, the School of Law and NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Despite the obstacles it has faced in its recognition efforts, NYU-RU is far from the first to try unionizing researchers under one group. Researchers from the University of Washington, Columbia University and the University of California system, to name a few, have all successfully unionized — some of them have existed for over a decade. 

CPW-UAW 4100,representing postdoctoral researchers at Columbia University, has been recognized since 2018. The union made significant strides in protections for international researchers in its most recent collective bargaining agreement with the university, which was reached in October 2023. CPW-UAW’s contract includes a 60-day grace period for immigration-related authorization delays as well as reimbursements of up to $1,250 to cover visa renewals, administrative fees and pre-approved travel costs. While relations between CPW-UAW and the university were contentious over this past year, with the union narrowly averting a strike during the bargaining process, it was still ultimately successful.

A photo of N.Y.U. Contract Faculty United and Researchers United protesting, wearing red shirts and holding blue U.A.W. signs and a blue banner.
NYU Contract Faculty United and Researchers United marched with members of UAW Region 9A at a Labor Day parade on Saturday, Sept. 9. (Shiphrah Moses for WSN)

UAW 5810, the union representing postdocs and academic researchers in the UC system, secured pay increases for academic researchers after a historic strike last winter. The union’s two-week-long strike was the largest in higher education history, with around 48,000 university employees participating.

“We’ll get all the postdocs — by the end of the contract — above $70,000, which was our goal,” Neal Sweeney, president of the union and a former molecular biology postdoc at the University of California, Santa Cruz told Science in November 2022. “It goes a long way to addressing the cost of living.” 

Similarly, UW Researchers United, which represents postdoctoral employees, researchers and engineers at the University of Washington, has secured a 29.5% increase to minimum pay over the duration of a three-year contract. The agreement also came after a nine-day strike in 2023.

Still, some states completely bar researchers from forming collective bargaining agreements at their universities. The Graduate Student Union of Central Michigan University is prohibited from representing  graduate student research assistants due to Michigan legislation. While Michigan democrats voted to allow graduate student research assistants to unionize earlier this year, the initial 2012 change to Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act barring them from union representation has yet to be overturned. 

In North Carolina, members of the Workers Union at the University of North Carolina have been fighting for the repeal of a state statute that prohibits state and local governments from entering into bargaining agreements with their employers. Since the University of Carolina is chartered by the state government, the law bars labor groups at the university from being recognized. North Carolina, along with Virginia, are the only two states in the country with bans on collective bargaining. 

While there are still legal and social barriers to widespread unionization for researchers across the country, the successes of researchers unions at some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the United States indicates that they may soon become a normalized part of academia.

Contact Shiphrah Moses at [email protected].


Correction, Feb. 11: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of researchers represented in the union and incorrectly listed one of the schools NYU does not have labor agreement with. The article has been corrected, and WSN regrets the errors.