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Nearly a year after salary petition, postdocs launch unionization effort

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The rally was held in Scudder Plaza in front of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) building.
Miriam Waldvogel / The Daily Princetonian

Roughly 100 postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates attended a rally organized by the Princeton University Postdoctoral Scholars (PUPS) union on Tuesday to officially announce a card campaign for postdoc unionization.

The card campaign marks the first step towards a union for the University’s roughly 700 postdocs. Once 30 percent sign a union card with PUPS, organizers can file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

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“Our goal really just isn’t 30 percent,” said Judy Kim, one of the leaders of the rally. “We want to aim for a really strong supermajority of postdocs to sign, to show Princeton that there is overwhelming interest and intent in doing this.”

Sipping on hot chocolate and eating quinoa-sweet potato chili, attendees listened to speeches from organizers with the Princeton Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 175, which represents some facilities and dining workers at the University.

PUPS’s efforts come amidst organizing by PGSU, which announced it was considering seeking voluntary recognition by the University in May. PGSU also started last term with a major unionization drive and got more than half of graduate students to sign union cards, though it has yet to seek voluntary recognition or schedule an election. Last month at Columbia, the postdoc union narrowly avoided a strike last month by ratifying a four-year contract that included salary increases.

Like graduate student organizers, several postdocs who spoke at the rally referenced the high cost of housing in the Princeton area and difficulties affording healthcare and childcare.

“We are paying more rent per square footage than we did in Manhattan,” said Adel Ardalan, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, referencing his move to Princeton from New York City. “We are burning through our savings like there is no tomorrow.”

Ardalan added that the University had not contributed to his childcare costs.

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The union drive comes nearly a year after postdocs petitioned the University for a minimum salary of $68,500, from the $54,840 floor at the time. Eight days after the letter was sent out, the University announced an increase in the minimum wage to $65,000. Two days after the announcement, around 50 postdocs gathered in front of Nassau Hall to demand a further hike in pay.

In an interview with the ‘Prince’ last Spring, Dean of Faculty Gene Jarrett ’97 noted that the salary floor of $65,000 “is among the highest in the country.”

He added, “Princeton has been one of the leading institutions with respect to supporting postdoctoral researchers, recognizing their contributions to higher education, and ensuring that they’re in the best possible position to succeed professionally.”

In his speech during the rally, Diogo Melo, a postdoc in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, expressed his thoughts on the raise. “Now, I break even,” he said. “I don’t pay to work for Princeton anymore.” 

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Melo, who is originally from Brazil, also said that the bargaining power of the union would be helpful for international students trying to negotiate salaries.

Jeremy Gallion, a postdoc in English, spoke about his difficulties in accessing health care for his partner. “No one should have to choose between housing and healthcare,” he said.

PUPS is organizing as a chapter of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which also represents postdocs at Columbia University, the University of California system, and other universities. PGSU, on the other hand, is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

According to organizer Jessica Ng, PUPS is still determining which demands to organize around as its union card drive goes public.

“We have been pretty successful over the past couple of months in building support among postdocs, to the point where we felt like we were ready to have a public event,” she told the ‘Prince’ in an interview. Ng declined to share the number of union cards that have been signed so far.

Other speakers at the rally, including Aditi Rao GS of PGSU, Jeff Coley of SEIU 175, and Abby Leibowitz ’26 of Princeton YDSA, discussed the importance of solidarity with the postdoc union.

Leibowitz is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

“On one hand, [undergraduates] have a personal stake in this fight,” Leibowitz said, referencing research contributions made by postdocs to the University’s undergraduate education. “On the other hand, we have many privileges that underscore the issues that [postdocs] face.”

Miriam Waldvogel is an assistant News editor at the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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