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California and the West

Teaching Assistants, UC Agree on First Tentative Contract

Labor: Union members are expected to ratify contract. It would culminate a 17-year organizing campaign by graduate student workers at the eight campuses.

May 11, 2000|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The union representing 9,400 University of California teaching assistants, readers and tutors has struck a deal with UC administrators, all but wrapping up a first contract in the 17-year campaign by graduate student workers to unionize.

Although the agreement remains tentative, union leaders expect that the membership will ratify the terms of the contract in elections at UCLA, UC Irvine and six other UC campuses.

The deal is the latest development in a unionization movement sweeping across the nation's public universities. With many public campuses now unionized, the focus is likely to switch increasingly to private universities. The National Labor Relations Board is now considering a bid by teaching assistants at New York University to organize a union--a move that is likely to set a precedent for other private universities nationwide.

In the UC contract talks, the tentative deal was reached late Tuesday night after eight months of balky negotiations that were nudged along by leaders in the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis' personnel director, Marty Morgenstern.

Unlike most union negotiations, money wasn't one of the most troublesome issues. Teaching assistants, TAs as they are called, on average get paid $13,800 a year and have student fees reduced in exchange for about 20 hours a week of grading exams and papers and doing much of the hands-on, small-group instruction of freshmen and sophomores. They typically view the jobs as part of their academic training to become professors.

Instead of money, a chief sticking point in the talks was who would control the workload and hours of teaching assistants. The eight graduate student bargaining units, which are affiliated with the United Auto Workers, wanted to limit the number of hours each week to make sure that TAs are not abused by idiosyncratic professors.

But such workload issues bump up against academic decisions that are the sole domain of the faculty. Professors told administrators they wanted to retain flexibility in the hours of their assistants, given that the workload is often light during the beginning of the term but much heavier during midterms and finals.

In the end, the union and administration agreed that TAs could work up to a maximum of 220 hours for an 11-week academic quarter--an average of 20 hours per week. Professors would retain some flexibility to assign more work at different times during the term, provided that TAs never work more than 40 hours in a single week.

The student workers also will get an immediate 1.5% salary hike, followed by a 2% raise in October, and then 2% raises for the second and third years of the three-year contract.

In addition, the university will waive an ever-increasing proportion of graduate student fees for those who are employed as TAs, readers or tutors. Graduate student workers now get 60% of their annual $4,000 fees waived. The fee remission would increase to 75% next year, 85% the following year and 100% in the contract's final year.

"People are overjoyed at the agreement," said Christian Sweeney, a graduate student of history and president of the UC Berkeley local. "We are looking forward to it being ratified."

At UC Irvine, Joanna Bouldin, a TA in film studies and a member of the union bargaining team, called the campus mood ecstatic. The most important point of the contract was its provision for a neutral arbitrator to settle many disputes, Bouldin said.

Jennifer Gress, vice president of external affairs for the Associated Graduate Students at UC Irvine, said she hoped the settlement will resolve long-standings tension between the university and its graduate students.

"It's a relief there is an end in sight," she said.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson praised the agreement as one that is affordable, "fair to academic student employees . . . and that recognizes the central role of the faculty in maintaining UC's standards of academic excellence."

Both union and administration leaders praised state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) for intervening at critical moments and Davis for committing one of his cabinet officers to see negotiations to fruition.

The governor made Morgenstern available to mediate negotiations when the talks broke down and the teaching assistants threatened a systemwide strike that could have disrupted final exams.

"Everyone worked really hard to achieve this breakthrough agreement," said Morgenstern. "It's a fair deal for teaching assistants. . . . It's good for the university and, most importantly, it is good for higher education in California."

Sweeney called the time spent by the arbiter "a symbol of the governor's commitment to collective bargaining."

Burton on more than one occasion brokered a temporary peace between union and administration representatives. Last month, he set in motion the final agreement by summoning Atkinson and other major players to Sacramento and sitting them down in a room until they worked things out.

Burton said he was pleased that the final issues had been resolved before UC undergraduates face another round of final exams and another potential strike.

"UC students now only have to face the normal nightmare of finals," Burton said through a spokesman, "not the exponential nightmare of finals during a strike."

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