[Marxism] Berkeley TAs Are Awarded Millions in Back Pay

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 21 07:27:16 MST 2020

Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 15, 2020
Berkeley TAs Are Awarded Millions in Back Pay
By Alexander C. Kafka

An arbitrator ruled this week that the University of California at 
Berkeley must stop employing teaching assistants for less than the 
10-hour weekly threshold at which they would contractually receive 
partial tuition reimbursement and other benefits beyond their salaries. 
The ruling also awards them back pay in the millions.

A graduate or undergraduate teaching assistant who worked eight hours a 
week in the fall of 2019 and didn’t receive tuition and fee remission 
will receive about $7,500 in back pay from the university, the UAW said. 
The ruling applies only to Berkeley’s department of electrical 
engineering and computer science, but UAW 2865 represents 18,000 
academic student employees at UC, including graduate and undergraduate 
TAs, readers, graders, and tutors, and it is urging students in various 
academic disciplines to take action on their own campuses to force 
similar concessions.

“Our need for TAs has risen much faster than the university's 
willingness to pay for TAs.”
Nathan Kenshur is a UAW steward at Berkeley, an undergraduate in math 
and history, and a math tutor. “Our contract is our strongest asset, and 
this win is the result of its successful enforcement,” he said in a 
statement. “We encourage workers at all UC campuses to look to their 
union when they are treated unfairly — and we hope that those who don’t 
have a union consider organizing one.”

The ruling on Monday was in response to a grievance, filed by the UAW in 
August 2017, that said Berkeley exploited student employees by employing 
them under the 10-hour (or 25 percent of full time) threshold at which 
they would contractually receive — in addition to their salaries — 
tuition reimbursement and child-care benefits and, in some cases, 
health-care benefits too. For example, Jerry Song, a junior in 
Berkeley’s EECS department, earns $876.46 a month working eight hours a 
week as a teaching assistant for “Introduction to Database Systems.”

The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union, ordering Berkeley to 
distribute the back pay and to stop denying student employees the 
tuition reimbursement that would come with 10 hours or more of weekly 
work. The ruling also requires TAs to be hired for 10, not eight, hours 
a week.

The union said the back pay will total $5 million and be distributed 
among more than 1,000 current and former student teaching assistants. 
Seventy percent of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants at 
Berkeley are members of the UAW, it says, but all student academic 
employees are covered under its contractual terms, and the electrical 
engineering and computer-science department employs more than 300 TAs.

Berkeley says the exact back-pay figure will be more than $1.5 million, 
but that the amount has yet to be determined.

“While we are disappointed with the arbitrator's decision, we accept the 
decision and will abide by it,” Janet Gilmore, a Berkeley spokeswoman, 
said in a statement on Wednesday. “The University and the EECS faculty 
believed that appointments should be kept at 20 percent or less in order 
not to interfere with student academic performance.”

Song said teaching assistants are “a little bit nervous to see what the 
results of this will be” because they are afraid more 10-hour-per-week 
appointments will mean fewer prized teaching opportunities for students. 
“Everyone’s hoping that the university will allocate more money to 
computer science” to make up the difference, he said.

Berkeley, which expanded its computer-science offerings in a new 
data-sciences division in late 2018, is considered to be among an elite 
group in the field, along with Carnegie Mellon University, the 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of 
Washington. As at many universities, interest in computer-science 
courses has grown quickly, with enrollment in "Foundations of Data 
Science" soaring from 100 in 2015 to 1,300 in 2018, and enrollment in 
the upper-level "Principles and Techniques of Data Science" increasing 
from 100 in 2016 to 800 students during that same period.

Other universities, too, are trying to figure out how to deal with the 
daunting growth of their computer-science divisions.

“Our need for TAs has risen much faster than the university's 
willingness to pay for TAs,” says Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer 
science at the University of Washington. “This is true of 
computer-science programs nationally. A significant proportion of our TA 
funds come from other sources: unrestricted gifts, vacant staff and 
faculty positions, etc. We are siphoning funds from everywhere in order 
to pay for TAs.”

Kenshur told The Chronicle that “the TA system faces pressure as 
enrollments expand quickly. However, tuition revenue and other income 
sources increase along with enrollment. So the solution to expanding 
enrollment is not to exploit undergrad labor by circumventing 
contractually guaranteed rights for workers,” he said, “but rather by 
using the resources which come with enrollment to adequately compensate 

He said the issue is not “a shortage of undergraduate labor, but rather 
a desire by the university to cut costs at the expense of students 
working through college.”

William R. Pokorny is a higher-education-employment expert with the 
Chicago law firm Franczek P.C. He said that while the ruling is a direct 
win only for the Berkeley students, administrators and students alike 
throughout the University of California system are bound to take notice.

The win, in itself, stands out, Pokorny says, as the National Labor 
Relations Board, under the Trump administration, is proposing a rule 
that would keep many graduate students from unionizing because they are 
not employees.

“Students at other universities, and other universities themselves,” he 
said, “will be paying attention to” the Berkeley ruling “if only as an 
illustration of what a union can do for you.”

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