After weeks of bargaining, UC Berkeley and UAW 2865 remain split on wages, fee remission and hiring levels for EECS and data science course staff.
In response, academic student employees, or ASEs, in these courses staged a ‘work-in’ Thursday, and UAW 2865, the union representing ASEs, suggested that further bargaining be facilitated by a mediator, according to union head steward Tanzil Chowdhury.
As parties struggle to converge on an agreement, approximately 35 ASEs and course instructors convened in a Monday town hall at the Wozniak Lounge to discuss mediation, campus budgetary constraints and attracting a diverse group of ASEs to instruct some of campus’s largest courses.
In mid-February, UAW 2865 entered negotiations with campus on staffing and fee remission models for ASEs working in campus electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, and data science courses, which employed about 700 undergraduates and more than 100 graduate workers in spring 2023.
For weeks, campus and the union negotiated workload management, hiring protocols and other related issues. But Wednesday and Thursday, campus set forth its first and second supposals on fee remission and course staffing levels.
The two supposals are a departure from the hopes of many ASEs — who sought to hire more course staff and redress cases of overwork without significant cuts to pay or benefits — and reflect dwindling state support for campus instruction.
The Wednesday supposal introduced three positions for EECS and data science undergraduate ASEs that would be paid hourly and be ineligible for fee remission. This semester, however, more than half of these 700 undergraduate EECS and data science ASEs get 40% of their tuition and fees remitted. The supposal did detail a 10% increase in staff hours per EECS and data science course enrollment from 2022 to 2023 hiring levels, but campus may modify these increases.
“After giving it more thought, we remain convinced that yesterday’s (Wednesday) proposal not only fails to address our primary concerns of increasing staff and maintaining course quality, but actively erodes the rights and benefits workers are entitled to,” said CS 61B graduate student instructor, or GSI, Alex Schedel in the opening statement of the Thursday bargaining session.
Even in light of some ASEs’ criticism, computer science division chair David Wagner said in an email that he is grateful for students’ time and says campus will continue to bargain in good faith to seek a resolution.
“We thank all the students who have shared so much of their time to work together with us on this important issue. The university will continue to negotiate this issue in good faith with the union,” Wagner said in the email.
In response to campus’s Wednesday supposal, UAW 2865 set forth their own on Thursday, challenging many of campus’s proposed policies on wages, fee remission and staffing increases.
UAW 2865 renamed campus’s proposed undergraduate classifications to Course Staff, or CS, 1, 2 and 3, respectively, and made CS2 and CS3 salaried positions. The union also bargained for tuition and fee remissions of 10% for CS1s and between 50% and 100% for CS2s and CS3s. Starting October 2023, CS2s and CS3s would make at least $2,900 per month for a 20-hour work week — on par with teaching assistants at seven UC campuses.
UC Berkeley would also be held to increasing staff hours per EECS and data science enrollment by about 25% from 2022-23 hiring levels, under the supposal.
Campus quickly responded to UAW 2865 with another supposal Thursday, which kept with the naming changes from UAW 2865’s Wednesday supposal.
Keen on hourly work, the campus supposal makes CS1s, CS2s and CS3s all hourly positions. In fall 2023, these course staffers would make about $22.69, $24.96 and $37.44 per hour, respectively and campus would not remit their tuition or fees. Like its previous supposal, campus would boost hiring levels by 15% per enrollment from 2022-23 levels, but can still modify these increases.
A large funding gap divides supposals from UAW 2865 and campus, but the union’s supposals may be more cost-effective than alternatives.
Late last year, ASEs rounded out the largest academic workers’ strike in U.S. history with the ratification of a new labor contract with the UC system. By that contract, campus teaching assistants — which include about 350 undergraduate EECS and data science course staffers — should receive at least $3,100 per month for 20-hour work weeks starting October 2023 and 100% tuition and fee remission.
Three key representatives have occupied campus’s side of the bargaining table: teaching professor Ani Adhikari and associate teaching professors Josh Hug and John DeNero.
For years, EECS and Data Science Undergraduate Studies, or DSUS, have administered scores of increasingly popular courses despite faculty burnout, claims of staff overwork, endemic student criticism and a thinning budget to keep the show running.
“It was pointed out to me that people only use the word ‘sustainable’ when things are really, catastrophically bad … and I think that’s accurate in this case,” DeNero said in his Friday installment of a video series on bargaining. “We’re about to cut the size of the CS major by a factor of four … and discussions on the scale of the data science major are happening among the faculty on at least a weekly basis, if not more. Faculty are stretched very thin. Students are displeased with how we’re running things. It’s a pretty dicey situation overall.”
In a March 13 video, DeNero shared that, just this academic year, EECS and DSUS instructional spending resulted in a $2.4 million deficit. In turn, he estimated that campus must reduce spending on undergraduate ASEs by $3 million for the 2023-24 school year, driven in part by a precipitous decline in state support.
In fiscal year 2001, the state of California extended the equivalent of $23,811 per UC Berkeley student in 2021 USD, adjusted for inflation by DeNero. Two decades later in fiscal year 2021, the state supplied only $7,857 per student, a three-fold decrease.
There were plans to increase state support by 5%, according to DeNero. But as the state projects a $25 billion dollar budget shortfall, a March 7 email from the office of the executive vice chancellor and provost noted that “legislative leaders are already signaling that they may need to reduce the 5% increase for higher education institutions.”
In line with campus supposals, DeNero suggested undergraduate course staff positions be hourly in a Feb. 28 video. Each semesterly appointment, salaried ASEs are compensated for 5 months, or 22 weeks, of work, but can only work 17 weeks under their union contracts.
“From the perspective of just maximizing compensation to undergraduates, this seems like a fine thing,” DeNero said in the video. “But (with) a broader goal of maximizing the number of positions, access to courses and making sure that staffing levels per course are adequate, this practice of paying people for 22 weeks, even though they only work 17 weeks, starts to make less sense.”
The union, however, has defended undergraduate GSIs, or uGSIs’, salaried positions, citing greater financial stability, and have pushed to secure tuition remissions.
Chowdhury recognized these budgetary constraints. He also acknowledged that union supposals are more cost-efficient than ASEs’ ratified contract and called on campus to extend more funding “to alleviate issues of overwork and understaffing.”
“Our issue is that we are being asked to take on specific, binding concessions (the end of tuition and fee remission, which 8-hour UGSIs currently receive at 40% and 20-hour UGSIs receive at 100%, just like every other TA in the state) without any real, contractual guarantee of staffing increases,” Chowdhury said in an email. “No other department in the state is unable to pay its workers at these rates.”
These rifts have moved UAW 2865 to offer mediation with campus, Chowdhury said in an email, where bargaining is facilitated by a neutral third party.
UAW 2865 has reached out to potential mediators, having named Barry Winograd or Darrell Steinberg as candidates, according to Chowdhury.
In 2020, Winograd sided with the union on a grievance, which held UC Berkeley responsible for remitting the tuition of a population of course staffers working eight hours per week. And in December 2022, Steinberg served as the mediator between the whole UC system and UAW 2865 in contract bargaining.
“We don’t think we’re going to reach any productive solution at this point,” Schedel said. “Everything they pass back just gets worse and worse, so we want to move onto mediation.”
Campus is interested in mediation, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, but has suggested using mediation services from the California State Mediation & Conciliation Service, which come at no cost to the parties.
During the Monday town hall, ASEs and instructors discussed the supposals’ language, funding pleas to state politicians, handling budgetary deficits and other wide-reaching implications of the ongoing negotiations.
Without fee remission, multiple attendees claimed EECS and DSUS may not attract a diverse pool of ASEs. If benefits are not competitive enough, they said, prospective ASEs from disadvantaged backgrounds would skip course staffing altogether and take an internship instead.
One attendee said his peers have called undergraduate ASEs’ compensation “ridiculously high,” and questioned whether competitive wages are truly what attract a diverse cohort of instructors.
Another, however, told of an “emotional” call with her father, where she had to tell him her paycheck could be a lot less if one of campus’s supposals was passed.
Even as the push for mediation holds strong, campus and UAW 2865 have planned for more bargaining sessions Tuesday and Wednesday in Soda Hall.
Nibras Suliman contributed to this article.