About 60 academic workers, students, faculty, staff and Union Auto Workers, or UAW, 2865 leaders convened at Li Ka Shing Center on Wednesday to discuss the impacts and potential redress of cases of staff overwork in EECS and data science courses in a town hall meeting.
With a new UAW 2865 contract ratified, academic student employees and administration have a unique opportunity to negotiate staffing and funding models for courses in the EECS, computer science and data science major programs — three of the four largest major programs in the 2021-22 academic year.
The town hall follows a side letter in the new contract between UAW 2865 and the UC system, ratified late last year. While the letter itself does not provide a staffing model, it obligates the parties to negotiate another side letter which includes guidelines increasing the staffing of academic student employees in EECS and data science courses.
The event began with a presentation by Dahlia Saba, an undergraduate student instructor in EECS 16A and UAW 2865 member majoring in EECS. Aside from discussing the new contract, fee remission and understaffing concerns, Saba’s presentation noted that the pending side letter may “require the university to prioritize education” and “ensure better experiences in these courses” by cutting office hours wait times, bolstering student supports and reducing staff overwork.
“The fact that we have this negotiation is an amazing, basically unprecedented step, because we’ve never had the opportunity to bargain over staffing with the university before,” Saba said.
Even though, after months of negotiations, UAW 2865 already ratified its contract, its agreement with the university allows a new round of negotiation to specifically address course staffing in EECS and data science courses.
These negotiations should occur between Feb. 13 and March 1 and be public, according to Saba’s presentation.
After the presentation, town hall attendees divided into groups by course to consider issues they have faced in EECS and data science courses and propose ways to rectify them.
Some student workers said they had avoided working over their allotted hours, but others cited cases of overwork, packed discussion sections and adopting tasks beyond the scope of their positions such as assigning grades or providing “psychological counseling.”
Attendees suggested a number of approaches, many of which included adding discussion sections, funding, staff, need-based scholarships or paying academic interns.
During contract negotiations with the UC system, however, UAW 2865 proposed more specific guidelines for staffing EECS and data science courses.
One week into the strike, UAW 2865 set forth a proposal to increase the number of hours worked by uGSIs, GSIs, readers and tutors by 50% for fall 2023 from fall 2022 numbers. If that proposal was ratified, UC funding also would have been allocated to cover the full cost of fee remissions and wages for EECS, data science and statistics course staff. This proposal, however, was not included in the ratified contract.
The resulting UC Berkeley side letter does not provide a complete framework for course staffing and funding. But it does give UAW 2865 greater bargaining power to address UC Berkeley’s EECS and data science course staffing.
“While overwork and understaffing are issues across the state, nowhere is it as intense as in the EECS/DS departments,” UAW 2865 head steward Tanzil Chowdhury alleged in an email.
David Wagner, computer science division chair and associate chair for UC Berkeley EECS, however, referenced policies which protect EECS and data science course staffers from overwork.
“Our policy is that course staff are not to work more hours than their appointment,” Wagner said in an email. “We take various measures to monitor workload and to communicate these policies to instructors and staff.”
Saba detailed what’s at stake in the ongoing bargaining for the side letter.
She said that staff who work over their hours are recognized and promoted. On the other hand, those who cannot — potentially due to other jobs or responsibilities — may not get promoted or even remain on course staff.
“We get this culture of overwork,” Saba said. “Not only is it exploitative, it’s also exclusive.”
Moreover, without extra funding, the EECS department will face a budgetary crisis in remitting resident tuition, according to Saba’s presentation.
From these negotiations, Saba wants to see a “sustainable” staffing model, one where she says students are supported without “requiring staff to work over their hours.”
“Now is the university’s opportunity to act,” Saba said. “They say that they care about equity. I’ve gotten so many emails talking about how important it is to have diversity in EECS, diversity in data science. And so, if the university really cares about these things, they should take this opportunity to fund EECS and data science education, because that’s how you make change.”
UC Berkeley does not have a dedicated budget for the upcoming side letter’s new policies, but funding will come from multiple sources, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore. The bargaining process should inform parties of financial needs, trade-offs and potential implications of budgetary decisions before seeking a collective resolution, she added.
Wagner cited student responses to course surveys and mentioned the various ways students can seek support in EECS and data science courses — including, but not limited to, discussion sections and office hours.
“Generally speaking, course surveys indicate a very high level of satisfaction overall with our largest courses, such as CS 61A and Data 8,” Wagner said in the email. “We are proud of the level of support we have been able to provide, the quality of instruction available, and the accomplishments of students in EECS and Data Science courses.”
In negotiations with UAW 2865, campus representatives include professors John DeNero, Ani Adhikari and Josh Hug, according to an email written by DeNero. Negotiations are moderated by campus employee and labor relations consultant Mara Otero.
Chowdhury added that a number of UAW 2865 members and leaders represent the local union at the bargaining table.