Undergraduate academic student employees deserve fair pay, benefits

undergraduate workers union protest outside sather gate
Vivian Du/Staff

One of the promises UC Berkeley makes to its students is that upon graduation, their education will be valued by the outside world. We are assured that employers and graduate schools alike will respect what this university has taught us. We are told that our world-class educations will generate job and research opportunities. Indeed, a UC Berkeley diploma is held in high regard by both corporations and graduate programs.

UC Berkeley does not, however, seem to hold its own students in such high regard when they work for the university. While boasting of the academic merits of its students, the UC system simultaneously fails to treat its university employees with respect.

Undergraduates working as undergraduate student instructors, or UGSIs, in the campus department of electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, are acutely aware of this harsh truth. In the past five years, EECS has almost doubled its student body, creating a surge in demand for instructors, tutors and graders. The university has responded to increased enrollment by employing a whole host of new student instructors — over 300 more in the last year alone — the vast majority of whom are undergraduates.

United Automobile Workers Local 2865, or UAW Local 2865, is a union for more than 18,000 student instructors, tutors and readers in the UC system, who bargain collectively for better pay, benefits, rights and workplace protections. Thanks to the UAW 2865 union contract, student instructors working more than 10 hours per week are entitled to full waivers of in-state tuition and the student services fee, and $150 per semester in campus fees.

Unfortunately, the administration seems to be avoiding honoring this agreement. Rather than waiving tuition and fees for all EECS student instructors, the vast majority of student instructors are employed at only a few hours per week, letting the university avoid waiving tuition and fees. If UC Berkeley is intentionally circumventing its obligations to properly compensate its student workers, that is a blatant disrespect of the union contract.

Hundreds of undergraduate student workers are being collectively denied millions of dollars in tuition waivers by a tightfisted administration that seems dedicated to cutting costs wherever possible — particularly on the backs of student workers. UAW members have filed a grievance against this contract violation, which is currently being reviewed.

Unfortunately, this pattern of undermining the standards of undergraduate student labor is not unique to EECS. At the Student Learning Center, unpaid math tutors worked alongside paid tutors. These unpaid tutors helped the same students with the same classes but received class units instead of wages. Last fall, we filed a union grievance in response to this situation. Our grievance was successful, and now all tutoring positions at the Student Learning Center are paid.

Similarly, the College of Chemistry’s Teacher Scholars Program and the integrative biology and molecular and cell biology departments employ undergraduate students to assist in lab and discussion sections. These students answer questions as a tutor would. They also lead discussions and demonstrations during these sections. Like other unpaid programs, this one seems to assert that the “experience” that these tutors receive is fair compensation for their labor.

Despite the university’s efforts to spin monetary compensation and academic credit as an either/or scenario, it is clear to student workers that learning something on the job should not preclude us from receiving proper pay and benefits. While work experience and letters of recommendation are valuable, they can’t pay rent or buy groceries — an especially significant concern given the ever-rising costs of living in the Bay Area. This university cannot be an inclusive institution while denying working students the financial benefits they need and deserve.

These abuses of undergraduate student workers reflect the structural disregard the UC administration apparently has for its student workers. Actions like this undermine the UC system’s core mission of public education at large. The university seems to resist the grievances filed over these issues at every step. Above all, the university appears to refuse to recognize that these students are performing labor and, both legally and morally, deserve compensation for it.

The grievances we have filed have either been settled in our favor or are currently being reviewed. It is likely that similar violations are taking place but have not been addressed, either because undergraduate student workers do not know their rights or because they fear retribution from their supervisors. Now, more undergraduates are becoming aware of and involved in their union.

Together as undergraduate student workers, we can protect our right to be treated with respect as university employees. Every undergraduate working as a reader, tutor or UGSI is represented by UAW 2865, with rights outlined in the union contract. Anyone doing work resembling grading, tutoring or other forms of teaching without receiving payment may be misclassified in violation of our contract and should contact a union representative.

The university knows that the UC cannot function without the labor of countless undergraduates. Employers and graduate schools understand the value of our skills and education. It is time for UC Berkeley to ensure that every student worker is compensated fairly for the work they perform.

Hero Ashman and Nathan Kenshur are head stewards in UAW Local 2865