Teaching Assistants Say They’ve Won Millions from UC Berkeley

The university underemployed more than 1,000 students—primarily undergraduates in computer science and engineering—in order to avoid paying union benefits, UAW Local 2865 says.
January 15, 2020, 9:25pm
Max Whittaker/Getty Images

The University of California at Berkeley owes student workers $5 million in back pay, a third-party arbitrator ruled on Monday, teaching assistants at the university say.

More than 1,000 students—primarily undergraduates in Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer science department—are eligible for compensation, the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents 19,000 student workers in the University of California system, told Motherboard. In some cases, individual students will receive around $7,500 per term, the union says.

“This victory means that the university cannot get away with a transparent erosion of labor rights guaranteed under our contract,” Nathan Kenshur, head steward of UAW Local 2865 and a third-year undergraduate math major at Berkeley, told Motherboard.

Thanks to their union contract, students working 10 hours a week or more at Berkeley are entitled to a full waiver of their in-state tuition fees, $150 in campus fees each semester, and childcare benefits. (Graduate students also receive free healthcare.)

But in recent years, Berkeley has avoided paying for these benefits, according to UAW Local 2865. Instead, the university has hired hundreds of students as teaching assistants with appointments of less than 10 hours a week.

On Monday, an arbitrator agreed upon by the UAW and the university ruled that Berkeley had intentionally avoided paying its student employees’ benefits by hiring part-time workers. It ordered the university to pay the full tuition amount for students who worked these appointments between fall 2017 and today, a press release from the union says.

"While we are disappointed with the arbitrator's decision, we accept the decision and will abide by it," a UC Berkeley spokesperson said. "We will work with the union to determine how to implement the decision."

The spokesperson said that it remains unclear how many students were impacted and what the cost of the compensation will be, and added that faculty and the university believe that student appointments should be kept at less than 10 hours as not interfere with academic performance.

“One of the most important wins in our union contract is full tuition remission. We shouldn’t have to pay to work at the University of California, and that practice ends with this decision,” Kavitha Iyengar, president of UAW Local 2865 and a fifth year PhD student at Berkeley's law school, told Motherboard. “Now the University of California system is on notice that we won’t stand for the violation of our rights.”

Iyengar and Kenshur say that this issue is particularly pronounced in technical fields, where Berkeley has rapidly expanded its study body in recent years to keep up with the growing demand for tech workers in Silicon Valley.

“The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department has had a massive increase in enrollment since 2016,” said Kenshur. "To compensate for this enrollment in a budget-friendly way, the department has been employing hundreds of mostly undergrad students to work less than ten hours a week.”

In the past six years, Berkeley has roughly doubled the number of undergraduate students in its electrical engineering and computer science department, leading to increased demand for student instructors. In the same span of time, the number of student instructors at UC Berkeley who aren’t eligible for tuition remission benefits has grown from 1 to 12 percent, according to the union.

“This is happening much more in STEM fields for two reasons. One is the increase in class sizes at electrical engineering and mathematics and that the nature of the graduate students' work is focused on research,” said Iyengar.

The news arrives during a period of heightened national attention to the exploitation of student workers—both graduate and undergraduate, at universities across the United States. This fall, more than 90 percent of Harvard graduate students voted to authorize a strike, leading to the longest graduate student strike in recent history. In December, UC Santa Cruz graduate students staged an unauthorized ‘wildcat’ strike, demanding an additional $1,412 to cover soaring housing costs in the area.

Meanwhile, Trump’s National Labor Review Board (NLRB) has proposed a rule that strips 1.5 million graduate student assistants at private universities of their right to collectively bargain. (In a similar ruling last year, the NLRB said Uber drivers do not have the right to join unions.)

To add to the victory at Berkeley, the arbitrator also ruled that the university must discontinue its practice of hiring students for less than 10 hours per week, with a few exceptions in the case of illness, UAW Local 2865 said.

Iyengar hopes that the effects of Monday’s decision at UC Berkeley will reverberate across the University of California system, where she says other universities seeking to lower their budgets have hired undergraduate students to work only a few hours a week without compensation for their tuition.

“I know that it’s happening on other campuses,” Iyengar said. “Nothing to the degree and scope of how it’s happening at Berkeley. But now student workers will feel empowered to make these kinds of changes. It’s through coming together and organizing that we made this happen.”

Local 2865 says that unionized student workers in the UC system have earned 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts, since 2000.

Update: This article has been updated with a comment from UC Berkeley.