More is Stronger: Only Radical Bottom-up Unionism can Change STEM

Organize the Lab: Theory and Practice

Chapter 8

More is Stronger: Only Radical Bottom-up Unionism can Change STEM

By Sam Bartusek, Paul Brown, Tess Jacobson, Claire Warner, and Avi Zeff

STEM departments remain some of the most abusive, inequitable, and inaccessible workplaces within academia. Rates of bullying are higher in STEM academia than other environments,1 and when complaints of abuse or harassment against underrepresented workers do occur, they are often mishandled or not taken seriously.2 For people who make it to the highest levels of the academic labor market, the prospects are no more promising. At the top fifty research universities, women hold only 31 percent of tenure-track STEM faculty positions, a figure that plummets to less than 2 percent for women of color.3 Those that do hold faculty positions are often burdened with time-consuming communal responsibilities and are more likely to leave academia than men.

At first glance, the growing trend of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committees and mental health awareness within STEM academia might signal that appealing to administrative channels and formal procedures would genuinely improve working conditions. Such a view is illusory. These measures are generally public-facing, top-down performances of neoliberal idealism, from which we as workers scarcely benefit. When NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine was considering hiring disgraced biologist David Sabatini, who engaged in numerous cases of sexual misconduct, it was student-led organizing and walkouts that kept him from being hired. The institutional bodies that promote DEI committees and claim to advocate for the safety of student workers were the same ones that promoted his candidacy.4 Only radical bottom-up labor organizing has the tools and the power to effect material and cultural change within our fields. Our strike with the Student Workers of Columbia made this abundantly clear, and showed how STEM student workers can strengthen the broader academic labor movement.

Progress in universities always comes from those with virtually no individual power: student workers, especially those in underrepresented, marginalized groups who are most vulnerable to abuse. Student workers confront racial and gender inequalities, catalyze discussions in their academic communities, and apply for diversity grants (often as tokens on behalf of institutions). Meanwhile, their efforts often go unnoticed. If action is taken at an institutional level, it is usually only performative.5 Those with the most power to enact structural change in academia—tenured faculty and administrators—largely fail to heed the call to action.6 Instead, they are more incentivized to prove their allegiance to scholarly leaders in their fields and the institutions that employ them, and buy into a belief in bureaucratic procedure and the “liberal utopia” of academia that erases the legitimate concerns of students and workers. There are numerous instances of a faculty member’s abusive behavior being an open secret among the field and university, with performative action taken only after the most harmed spoke out, such as astronomer Geoff Marcy at UC Berkeley, historian William Harris and psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman at Columbia.7 Even still, the action almost always only treats the symptom rather than the cause: firing the abusive professor but failing to engage with the academic structure that allows abuse to thrive.

In contrast to procedural advocacy through the top-down channels established by the university, labor organizing works to deliver real change. To this end, our strike had four main demands: neutral arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment, full recognition of our bargaining unit, interdepartmental pay parity and a raise to approach a living wage, and improved health benefits. However, the barriers to achieving these goals would prove to be significant. We struck against one of the strongest institutions in the world, and one of the fiercest at union-busting: a university that fought our demands for nearly a decade and spent upwards of $1,500 an hour for the huge anti-labor law firm Proskauer and Rose.8 Throughout the bargaining process, both Columbia’s team and our ostensibly-neutral mediator constantly told us our demands were extravagant and that we had to lower our expectations. Despite their condescension, and as a direct result of our strike and organizing, we won all of our demands. No top-down measures have achieved close to those won through our collective action.

As has been demonstrated countless times, universities have little incentive to pursue  institutional initiatives. They view students and employees as resources to exploit when useful and as problems to ignore when they demand real change. Institutional initiatives can only reform the operation of academic power structures, whereas labor organizing can directly challenge them.

Similarly-placed unions at comparable institutions lacked the numbers and the power that comes with democratic unionism. For example, we were disheartened when, early in our strike, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) dropped their demand for full neutral third-party arbitration in cases of harassment or discrimination rather than striking to achieve a better contract.9 HGSU’s capitulation on neutral arbitration, a crucial demand at our own bargaining table, was perhaps inevitable for a union without member-driven strike power. In contrast, our success was fueled by an active union membership; we were able to force Columbia to concede through a massive strike lasting close to ten weeks. Our union was willing to remain on strike because the start date, bargaining demands, and duration of the strike were all democratically chosen by the rank-and-file union members. In short, the union truly represented us. For better or for worse, the struggle of workers at one academic institution affects the working conditions of those elsewhere. In the future, the strong contract we achieved will bolster student worker organizers all across academia, as it sets a standard for what can be won from powerful academic institutions at the bargaining table.

For a student worker strike, the most obvious form of withheld labor comes from teaching assistants and instructors. However, in STEM, many student workers only perform research work, which is fundamentally entangled with their personal academic progress, and thus not considered “strikeable” labor. Finding alternative avenues for STEM student workers to further the strike was crucial for our strike’s success. STEM workers were key members in efforts to disrupt university operations. STEM student workers canceled department seminars and colloquia, and urged visiting speakers to cancel or postpone in solidarity, with substantial success. STEM workers also set up picket lines in front of delivery bays, asking unionized drivers not to cross, and effectively stopping deliveries ranging from lab equipment and office supplies to compressed gas and dry ice. These delivery stoppages relied on individual solidarity between delivery drivers and student workers, as well as large-scale coordination with locals in the New York City area. Delivery stoppages forced STEM departments to finally engage with our struggle; when research labs faced delays in receiving supplies, professors and department leadership could no longer pretend, as they had done in the past, that the strike was an issue concerning only those involved in teaching.

Striking STEM workers also appealed to faculty members in their departments—who might otherwise have remained apolitical in the mode typical of scientists—to attend informational town halls about the demands of the union and the state of negotiations. Workers met privately with the professors leading their research groups to educate them. Through these discussions, we learned that many of the Principal Investigators were uninformed, or only following the biased perspective advertised by the administration, of whom they were often suspicious as well. These personal interventions were a vital step in counteracting the false narratives dispersed, on a nearly daily basis, to faculty by university administrators in an effort to paint our demands as frivolous and unnecessary. As a result of these informal sessions and conversations, many STEM faculty members began to recognize the importance of protections against the harassment and discrimination that is rampant in research workplaces. Finally, STEM student workers participated in our large and visible picket lines. The sheer number of striking workers added immensely to the power of the strike and created opportunities for publicity and media coverage; harnessing the power and size of the STEM worker population was a vital part of this. As we have grown in numbers and consciousness, we’ve learned how to mobilize research-heavy STEM departments. More time and experience can only amplify our collective power.

Unlike the performative and incremental action taken at the institutional level, unions can  shift the balance of power. To reshape STEM academia, our union must not focus solely on economic conditions but must also engage with the broader political and structural realities of STEM labor. We need to consider the socioeconomic impact of our research and the exploitative relationships in our labs and departments. What motivates our research? Which institutions (military, governmental, or private) fund our research, and why?10 Finally, who stands to gain from the work we do, and how?11 We dream of labs and research groups where student workers are informed and empowered to engage in meaningful research that contributes to global justice.

As it stands, we are often required to work within the confines of our ever-expanding universities that operate as businesses as they vie for bigger endowments, more land, and greater social and political capital.12 Take, for example, Columbia’s newest Manhattanville Campus—a STEM-branded project, housing the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and initially touted as a public good necessary for the advancement of Alzheimer’s research.13 The new campus is built on the remains of city blocks purchased and bulldozed by Columbia, who is fueling the “science-washed” gentrification of West Harlem.14

We have the world to win by organizing. Our strike resulted in massive achievements at the bargaining table, but entrenched issues must be addressed with further organizing within departments, increased involvement of faculty across the university, and engagement with broader movements for social justice. We haven’t yet addressed department hierarchies, the deepening casualization and adjunctification crises, the funding disparity between sciences and humanities, or the deeply unethical system by which grants are funded.15 We must continue to challenge institutions that amass extreme wealth as they squeeze every penny out of public grants and displace communities through gentrification and feudalistic land hoarding. We have shown that labor organizing works; where can we go from here?

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  1. Sherry Moss, “Research Is Set up for Bullies to Thrive,” Nature 560, no. 7720 (August 28, 2018): 529–529,
  2. Morteza Mahmoudi, “Shoddy Harassment Investigations Are a Stain to Academia,” Scientific American, February 22, 2022,
  3. Bettina J. Casad et al., “Gender Inequality in Academia: Problems and Solutions for Women Faculty in STEM,” Journal of Neuroscience Research 99, no. 1 (2021): 13–23.
  4. Colleen Flaherty, “No New Job for Sabatini,” Inside Higher Ed, May 4, 2022.
  5. Courtney N. Wright, “Dear DEI People: Your Black Colleagues Are Waiting,” Inside Higher Ed, June 19, 2020,; Lee Fang, “Breaking Unions With the Language of Diversity and Social Justice,” The Intercept, June 7, 2022,
  6. Mohammad Gharipour, Heather Ferguson, and Charles Davis, “‘DEI’ Discourse in Higher Education Could Do More Harm than Good,” Baltimore Sun, December 17, 2021,
  7. Robin Wilson, “Geoff Marcy’s Downfall,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 22, 2016,; Joshua Kendall, “Muzzled by Psychiatry in a Time of Crisis,” Mad In America, April 25, 2020,; Josefa Velasquez, “A Racist Tweet by Columbia Psychiatry Chair Ripples Through New York’s Elite Medical Circles,” The City, February 24, 2022,
  8. Sarah Jones, “Columbia’s War On Labor,” The New Republic, May 1, 2018,
  9. Cara J. Chang and Meimei Xu, “‘An Important Breakthrough on Both Sides’: Grad Student Union Concedes Demand for Title IX Third-Party Arbitration,” The Harvard Crimson, October 26, 2021,
  10. The DoD NDSEG fellowship program funds graduate students explicitly to conduct research that is connected to military priorities and national security. Indeed, much of the scientific research conducted at American universities since the end of the Second World War has been funded in part by the US military. See “DoD NDSEG Fellowship Program,” accessed April 12, 2022, Many graduate students are also funded by industry, which is predicated on their research being tied to the goals of those corporations. From the Chevron site, “we also attract top diverse talent through strong relationships with associations that align with our business”— namely the business of fossil fuel extraction and environmental exploitation. See “Chevron University Partnerships and Associations,” accessed April 12, 2022, Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative has been supported by BP, one of the worst environmental polluters in the world and responsible for the devastating New Horizons spill, since its inception in 2000. See Fiona Harvey, “Universities Must Reject Fossil Fuel Cash for Climate Research, Say Academics,” The Guardian, March 21, 2022,
  11. Sophie Wang, “Who Benefits?,” Free Radicals (blog), June 25, 2016,  
  12. Nathan Kensinger, “As Columbia University Moves into Manhattanville, Its Industrial Past Is Erased,” Curbed NY, March 8, 2018,
  13. Steven Gregory, “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good: The Radiant University,” City & Society 25, no. 1 (April 2013): 47–69,
  14. The sale of these blocks was made possible through an abuse of eminent domain. See Justin B. Kamen, “A Standardless Standard: How a Misapplication of Kelo Enabled Columbia University to Benefit from Eminent Domain Abuse,” Brooklyn Law Review 77 (2012): 32. In 2010, after years of litigation, the New York State Court of Appeals allowed the Manhattanville land to be seized and sold to Columbia because it was “blighted.” See Martin Gold and Lynne Sagalyn, “The Use and Abuse of Blight in Eminent Domain,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 48, no. 4 (2011): 1119–55. As a part of the sale, Columbia agreed to invest $150 million into the local community in a “Community Benefits Agreement.” Yet astonishingly little of the money allotted to affordable housing—in the aftermath of this displacement of thousands of residents—has actually been spent. See Juliana Kim, “Nine Years Later, Just 1 Percent of Columbia’s $10 Million Commitment to Affordable Housing Has Been Spent,” Columbia Daily Spectator, February 13, 2018,
  15. “Manifesto,” The Adjunct Crisis, May 23, 2013,; Katherine Getchell, “Why Is the Military Funding Science?” UCSD Guardian, February 28, 2021,; Ilana Cohen and Michael E. Mann, “Op-Ed: Climate Research Funded by Fossil Fuel Profits Discredits Universities and Hurts the Planet,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2022,