UC Berkeley student instructors plan to strike the week of Dec. 1, just before final exams—potentially leaving students without last-minute instruction or final grades.
United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents approximately 13,000 University of California student teachers, graders and tutors (ASEs), most of them graduate students, called for the system-wide strike Monday, claiming the administration has bargained in bad faith.
Three university unions—the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the University Professional and Technical Employees, (UPTE-CWA)—have called for sympathy strikes, creating still more logistical problems for the university.
UC Berkeley spokeswoman Carol Hyman said administrators were working on contingency plans, but refused to speculate on potential impacts.
In October, student instructors staged a hastily planned walkout, catching other university unions and many of its own members off guard and away from picket lines.
“We’ll be better organized for sure,” said UAW Local spokesperson Rajan Mehta, adding that strikers planned to place a picket line outside the Tang Health Center so “nurses will have something not to cross.”
ASEs have been without a contract since Oct. 1 and negotiations conducted by a state mediator broke down two weeks ago over university demands that the union pledge not to engage in future sympathy strikes. No talks are scheduled before the end of the semester.
Mehta said the strike would last through finals, though ASEs would return to work for the spring semester in January even without a new deal.
Striking at the end of the semester poses extra pains for students. Mehta said striking instructors would refrain from offering review sessions and proctoring and wouldn’t grade final exams.
Asked about the timing of the strike, Mehta blamed the university and said the interests of the union’s members had to come first. “We realize students will be hurt by this, but the university has continued to break the law and put this on themselves.”
Just how many ASEs plan to honor picket lines remains unclear. Typically, humanities students who receive less independent funding than science students are more likely to strike. Mehta insisted that more than half of UC Berkeley’s 2,200 ASEs honored picket lines in October—though the university estimated that number at fewer than 50 percent.
To prepare for the planned strike, UC Berkeley Provost Paul Gray asked professors to hold review sessions that striking GSIs would have conducted and to collect course grade information before the work stoppage begins.
Professors were also informed that in the case of a strike they would have greater latitude to alter the format of a test. If they are unable to assign grades by the semester’s end, professors may give students either a mark of ‘In Progress (IP) or an option to accept a pass/fail grade, according to an e-mail from Chair of the Committee on Courses of Instruction John Bishop posted on the UC Berkeley website.
For classes taught by a striking graduate student instructor, the department chair will determine the type of grade given. Grades must be submitted by three days after the test, or Jan. 5 for professors with more than 50 students in a class.
Of the three unions pledging sympathy strikes, CUE, the university’s largest union representing approximately 2,800 UC Berkeley clerical workers, appears most likely to exacerbate logistical difficulties stemming from the planned student instructor strike.
“A lot of our folks have roles scheduling finals and finding rooms for finals, so there could be a lot problems for the university,” said CUE President Claudia Horning.
UAW Local 2865, like other UC unions, has accused the university of negotiating in bad faith, maintaining that UC sends negotiators to the bargaining table who don’t have authority to reach a deal, a claim the university rejects.
The UAW has filed numerous unfair labor practice charges against the university, which they insist gives them the right to strike despite neither side declaring an impasse. The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) will ultimately settle the charges.
ASE’s receive a minimum of $14,200 for a nine-month work year as well as health benefits and student fee waivers for those listed as working 25 percent of their time on instruction—among the better packages in public education according to UC Spokesperson Paul Schwartz.
Neither side would discuss contract details, but Mehta said that the sticking point remained a university demand that that the UAW agrees to a stipulation barring them from participating in sympathy strikes.
The university holds that current labor contract language prohibits such actions, but the issue remains a legal gray area, so the school has demanded that other unions follow the example of university lecturers who earlier this year agreed to contract language baring sympathy strikes.
Student instructors also walked out before finals in 1992. Published accounts of the ensuing six-week strike reported that strikers divided over whether or not to give students grades, with many acquiescing to the university’s urgings and others giving out marks of “In Progress”.
UC Berkeley undergraduate students seemed miffed at the timing of the strike.
“We rely a lot on graduate students to learn the material,” said UC Berkeley Senior Megan Thornton. “That could actually affect how some students perform on their final.”