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Undergraduate student unions [1] and Berkeley CS (#988)

Topics/tags: Academia

I had thought the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers was the only union of undergraduate students in the U.S. But I may be wrong. UAW 2865 represents undergraduate tutors, readers, and TAs at the University of California. There’s also SLEU, the Student Library Employee Union at the University of Chicago [2]. Of course, both of these unions also include graduate students. I’m pretty sure that UAW 2865 has a large number of graduate students since it represents both graduate students and undergrads, but SLEU is dominated by undergrads. Perhaps UGSDW is the only undergraduate-only, unaffiliated union of undergraduate student workers.

Undergraduate workers in UAW 2865 at UC Berkeley have recently made the news. In particular, the student TAs in CS at Berkeley just won a major victory. I first learned about it when a friend pointed me to a Twitter feed about the issue. UAW 2865 also posted a press release about the matter. I was hoping to scoop the academic newspapers and get a musing on the topic out before their articles appeared, but yesterday was too busy. Inside Higher Ed released an article on the victory this morning [3].

Here’s the backstory, as I understand it.

UAW 2865 and the UCs have an agreement by which any students who work as tutors, TAs, and the like for at least ten hours per week receive benefits, including tuition remission and, perhaps some health care. I don’t know how they settled on ten hours. I thought most institutions used twenty as the cut-off for benefits. But that’s the rule.

Berkeley CS, like most CS programs nationwide, has experienced explosive growth. Dan Garcia’s work with AP CS Principles and his incredible teaching in the non-majors intro have probably contributed, too. Berkeley, like most large institutions, uses a course model that involves large lectures and much smaller recitation sections. Because there aren’t enough graduate students to teach those recitation sections, Berkeley has experienced undergrads run them with supervision from one of the teaching faculty. (Remember, this is my understanding. It may not be correct.) To keep sections small while maintaining a reasonable budget, the department chose the hack of designating most of the section-leader positions as eight-hour-per-week positions. There are some positions, like senior undergraduate TA, that they designate as over ten hours, and which thereby confer benefits.

This all happens in the Bay Area, where costs of living are insanely high. So the undergrad TAs make about $30/hour, whether or not they work enough hours for benefits. The Inside Higher Ed piece notes that

Information that the department shared at a town hall around 2016 show[s] that undergraduate TAs on eight-hour appointments cost $4,000 per term, while 10-hour appointees cost $11,000.

I’m pretty sure that $4,000 per course is more than many adjuncts in the humanities with Ph.D.’s make.

As you might guess, the union was not happy with the hack, sued, and won. Berkeley is now responsible for retroactively providing tuition reimbursements for a bunch of student TAs from the past three years or so. The total cost will be about $5 million. I expect that, in the future, Berkeley CS will have somewhere between one-half and one-third as many undergraduate TAs, which means that their sections will be significantly larger. Or perhaps someone will come up with a way to bump the budget.

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about all of this. I feel bad for the students in the classes, who will likely get a less good education in CS or who may get cut out of the department altogether. But what about the underlying issues? On the one hand, the students who accepted the eight-hour assignments knew what they were getting into and decided that the benefits of the position [4] were appropriate compensation. On the other, unions and contracts with unions exist for a reason, and undermining those contracts is not appropriate. It may also be that students who might have benefited from taking those positions chose not to accept them because they needed the tuition remission benefit that came from another position [5].

In the end, the institution negotiated a contract in which a ten-hour-per-week position comes with benefits and it’s clear that the TA positions should have been designated as ten-hour-per-week positions. It sucks that it giving TAs the agreed-upon benefits will have a significant impact on the education of other students, but that’s not the union’s fault [6].

What does this tell me about Grinnell’s union? I know that we no longer have a case pending before the NLRB, so I’m likely no longer restricted in what I can say about the union and its expansion. Nonetheless, I’d prefer not to write direct comments for or against the union. Instead, I’ll just comment on our mentor, tutor, and grader positions. I’ve said for some time that they require special skills and that at other institutions, these kinds of positions earn high pay. I know it would also affect budgets at Grinnell, but I’d like to see our positions pay better, at least as much as the dining services worker positions [7].

Postscript: I apologize to my friends and colleagues at Berkeley if I have misrepresented any of these issues or if my reflections on the situation seem inappropriate. And you have my sympathy for having to deal with what sounds like incredibly difficult issues.

[1] When I write Student Unions, I mean organizations of student workers, not the buildings at the center of many campuses.

[2] SLEU just won a case to allow themselves to form.

[3] I have no idea why they call this Berkeley’s $5M Glitch. It doesn’t seem like much of a glitch to me.

[4] Not just the pay, but also the experience of teaching.

[5] I have the same issue with the higher pay we give to dining services workers since that pay differential encourages students to work dining services, rather than as a class mentor or research assistant, even though the latter positions would have more important long-term impacts.

[6] It is, unfortunately, one of those things that people tend to hold against unions.

[7] I understand that supply-and-demand is also an issue, which suggests that we should pay more for dining services positions, which are hard to fill. Certainly, that’s what happens with lifeguarding. Nonetheless, positions that require specialized skills also deserve high compensation. I guess that applies to lifeguarding, too.

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-16.