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UC's Teaching Assistants Postpone Strike

Unions: Senate, Assembly leaders broker three-week truce to give mediator time to jump-start contract negotiations.


SAN FRANCISCO — The union representing 9,300 University of California teaching assistants agreed Thursday to postpone a strike planned for today and try to resolve stalled contract talks with the help of a mediator appointed by Gov. Gray Davis.

The union called off its strike at the urging of state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

The legislative leaders brokered a three-week truce to give some time for Marty Morgenstern, a labor expert and the governor's personnel director, to help the administration reach a contract with the newly recognized union.

"We are confident that an outside party will improve things," said Christian Sweeney, a spokesman for the union, which has chapters at UCLA and seven other campuses. "Morgenstern knows the law and we were very happy with his appointment."

Teaching assistants, readers and tutors in the union affiliated with the United Auto Workers do much of the hands-on, small-group instruction of freshmen and sophomores on UC campuses. They had planned their strike for the time professors need them the most: to help read term papers and grade final exams scheduled for next week.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson said he was pleased the strike was averted, given how it would have disrupted the education of undergraduates and been difficult both for teaching assistants, or TAs, and the professors who employ them.

"We are clearly committed to the notion that the TAs have bargaining rights," Atkinson said.

Negotiations have resolved most issues in the contract talks, including salaries and total hours, Atkinson said, but have snagged on matters that administrators see as infringement on the academic judgment of the faculty.

For instance, union negotiators have been pushing for a limit on the total number of hours TAs can work in a single week. Teaching assistants generally work half time, and the union wants to limit their weekly hours to a maximum of 16 to 20 hours per week.

Such a cap on working hours would be fine for some classes, but not for others, administrators said. In some instances, professors need their TAs to put in far more hours in the final week of the academic term to help read a mountain of term papers and exams.

"The faculty feel very strongly about this," said Judith Boyette, a UC assistant vice president who oversees labor relations. Under state labor law, she said, it's clear that union contracts cannot restrict how professors design their courses.

The graduate students, who work as TAs as part of their academic training, earn $13,800 a year on average for their part-time work during the nine-month academic calendar. They also get health benefits and a waiver of 60% of their student fees.

In addition to nonbinding mediation, the truce brokered by legislative leaders also sets up a framework to resolve some of the complaints of unfair labor practice lodged by union officials with the state labor relations board.

Union officials have filed more than 40 complaints, including allegations that managers were altering working conditions that should be approved by the union through collective bargaining.

"The university has agreed to send out a letter to managers across the system, reminding them of their obligations under the law," Sweeney said. "Management has been taking steps to roll back the changes on a number of campuses."

Teaching assistants staged a systemwide strike before final exams in December 1998. It lasted four days, and then Burton and Villaraigosa worked out a 45-day cooling-off period. During that period, the university agreed to recognize the fledgling union. That led to contract talks with the union's eight bargaining units, which began last summer and have continued inconclusively since.

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