UC Berkeley student workers awarded millions in back pay

The decision comes after the student worker union filed a grievance against the school, saying it was purposefully underscheduling students to avoid paying tuition remission.
University of California Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley, campus.David Madison / Getty Images

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By Ben Kesslen

The University of California, Berkeley, owes student workers more than $5 million in back pay, an arbitrator ruled Monday.

The decision comes after United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union for student employees of the University of California system, filed a grievance in 2017 against Berkeley, claiming the school was purposefully scheduling student workers in the electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) department for fewer than 10 hours a week to avoid paying tuition remission. UAW 2865 is comprised of teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, graders and tutors.

Under the union’s contract, students who work 10 hours or more a week must be given tuition and fee remission. The results of the arbitration between the union and the school will affect hundreds of current and former student workers, mostly undergraduates, UAW 2865 says.

A teaching assistant working 10 hours a week in Fall 2019 who did not receive tuition and fee remission should expect a $7,500 check in the mail, the union said.

The total amount owed to the students remains unclear, but the union says it could be up to $8 million in back pay, and the university said they currently think the number could total $5 million or more.

As Berkeley’s EECS major has grown in popularity, so has the demand for more student workers in the department. But according to data from the union, the number of workers employed fewer than 10 hours a week went from 2 percent in April 2015 to 12 percent in April 2019. The union says this was a purposeful move by the university to save money and avoid paying fee remission.

The arbitrator's decision is being celebrated by UAW 2865, which believes it is a long overdue restitution for undergraduates the university has exploited.

“The University of California is on notice,” said Kavitha Iyengar, president of UAW 2865 and a doctoral student at Berkeley. “They cannot exploit undergraduate workers for low pay.”

Iyengar said UAW 2865’s contract mandates that students can't “pay to work,” meaning students working for the university in a significant capacity shouldn't have to pay their own tuition, because then they would essentially be funding their own salary. The ruling, she said, upholds this right.

The University of California, Berkeley, told NBC News the school is “disappointed with the arbitrator's decision.”

“We accept the decision and will abide by it,” the school said in a statement. “We will work with the union to determine how to implement the decision.”

The decision comes as the country has seen a wave of unionization efforts by student workers and as the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board is seeking to make it more difficult for students to organize.

“This ruling held that the [Berkeley] administration was deliberately reducing the number of hours of teaching assistants and graduate student instructors in order to evade paying the fee remission,” Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said.

Wong believes the Berkeley decision will have reverberations across the country, calling it a "big breakthrough" for the union.

Universities are cutting costs and corporatizing, moving away from tenure-track professorships and relying more on adjuncts and graduate students, which partly explains the wave of unionization efforts, Wong said.

As graduate student organizing increases, so too has undergraduate organizing. Saddled with debt and working everywhere from the library to dining halls to classrooms, undergraduates are playing a more crucial role in university operations — and standing up for their rights in the process, he said.

“We have seen nationally that graduate and undergraduate students track what is happening on other campuses,” Wong explained. “The early organizing of graduate students on key campuses served as an impetus for students on other campuses to follow their lead.”

Barry Eidlin, an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University who studies labor unions, said Monday's ruling shows “the real reason why universities and the Republican administration are so opposed to academic student employee unions.”

“In the absence of a union, they can get away with stuff like this,” he said.

Universities often say that students who teach, tutor and grade aren’t workers because they get educational value from their work. While undergraduates like those employed at Berkeley are certainly learning while working for the school, Eidlin says that’s besides the point.

“The fact that people are getting an educational benefit out of this work doesn’t negate the fact that this is work,” he said. “Think about how much of what we do at work is learning on the job.”

Iyengar, UAW 2865’s president, hopes the win shows other students what type of power they have, and makes clear that undergraduates are doing the same type of work as graduate students when they provide teaching assistance.

“It’s important now more than ever that we fight to maintain the rights that we won, and extend those rights to more people,” she said.