I was last at Berkeley in Spring 2016, and it’s possible things have changed since then, but I’m aiming to represent the viewpoints as accurately as possible.

On Tuesday, UAW Local 2865, the union representing TAs across the UC system, announced that UC Berkeley would pay $5 million in back pay to TAs. The story is getting picked up by a few places: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, local Bay Area news outlets like The Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel, and even some national outlets like Vice.

In aggregate, these articles actually do a pretty good job of explaining the details, and a few of the different viewpoints, but as someone who TAed at Berkeley, in an 8 hour position, I’ve been feeling very conflicted.

Why Does the University Owe Back Pay?

At UC Berkeley, all TAs are paid an hourly wage. On top of this, all TAs who work at least 10 hours / week are entitled to childcare benefits and fee remission. The important part is the fee remission. If you TA for 10 hours a week or more, you are paid $7,500 for the semester on top of your hourly wage, which covers the in-state tuition for the semester.

In the CS department, most TA positions used to be 10 hr / week or 20 hr / week positions. Starting around 2015-2016, many of these TA positions started turning into 8 hr / week appointments, making them ineligible for fee remission. Doing so let the department get more TA hours for the same amount of budget, since the pay that would have gone to fee remission gets turned into TA hours instead. They saw a welfare cliff, and decided to get as close as they could without going over.

After this started spreading, the union filed a grievance against the University. Now, to be clear, nothing the University did was illegal. The contracts were clear that 8 hr / week positions were not eligible for fee remission, and the classes I helped teach made sure this was clear as well. However, the union argued that the University was effectively violating the spirit of the negotiated fee remission, by turning jobs that needed benefits into ones that didn’t. This is not a new practice. Companies have done this for a while, taking full-time jobs and turning them into jobs classified as contractors.

The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union, and the University has agreed to cooperate with the decision.

Why Did UC Berkeley Start Doing This?

In the last few years, UC Berkeley has had a perpetual funding problem. This, plus exploding interest in CS courses, plus professor salaries rising due to competition from industry, combines to tons of strain on the CS department’s budget.

In 2016, in light of protests by graduate student instructors (GSIs), there was a town hall to discuss the CS department’s budget, attended by professors, members of the union, and much of the CS department’s teaching staff, myself included. Throughout the town hall, the professors made it clear they supported the GSI protests, and would have hired TAs at 10 hr appointments if they had the funding for it. The Berkeley CS department does get some funding, but nowhere near enough to meet demand. The department does heavy outreach for donor support, using this to shore up the budget, but they don’t think it’s sustainable to rely on donors to the degree they are. They’ve repeatedly asked the Berkeley administration to give them more funding, and have consistently seen it go to non-academic areas, like athletics or more administrative jobs.

One obvious solution was to restrict enrollment, instead of using this 8 hr TA loophole. However, CS enrollment is already insane. Some lower division courses literally have thousands of students. At the town hall, professors teaching these courses said they were happy to have the class be as large as possible, as long as there was TA support for it. At some point, the department decided that they’d rather have bigger classes than 10 hr TA appointments. My understanding was that they wanted this to be a one-time deal, but like the donor support, this trick became a normalized part of the budget.

Were These 8 Hour TA Appointments Bad?

It heavily depends on who you ask. Eight hour TA jobs were almost exclusively held by undergraduates, and in fact undergrads make up the majority of the CS department’s TA staff. This tends to surprise people, and can be interpreted as vaguely exploitative. Let me explain reasons it wasn’t.

Undergrads started getting hired as TAs because Berkeley didn’t have enough grad student TAs to meet course demand. However, some professors found that undergraduate TAs did a better job than graduate TAs. For lower division courses, graduate and undergraduate students know the material equally well, but undergraduates actually took the course they were TAing. Grad students who learned it at different institutions were less familiar with how Berkeley taught the course.

Additionally, some undergrad TAs would TA the same course several years in a row. This happened less with grad students, since after they met their TA requirements, they would switch to focusing on research. The increased continuity from undergrads made it easier to preserve course teaching culture and knowledge, which genuinely improved the quality of some classes.

Finally, the increase in undergrad TAs was good for graduate school applications, since it gave more undergrads a connection to a professor who could eventually write them a letter of recommendation.

From my point of view, these undergrad TA positions were a net positive for everyone involved.

None of this is directly related to the union’s grievance. Fee remissions will be paid back to both undergrad TAs and graduate TAs. It is, however, indirectly related. One side effect of hiring many 8 hour TAs is that you have to hire more undergrads. More students got to hold TA positions, talk to professors, get letters of recommendation, and so on.

You could argue this is Goodharting in action, since each professor gets less time to evaluate each TA. Maybe all it did was rubber-stamp more letters that said “this student helped me teach a course”, without actually saying anything useful for graduate school admissions. But in this instance, I don’t the incentives are entirely unaligned. Part of TAing is to help students practice teaching. I taught one section a week in my 8 hour TA appointment, while 20 hour TAs taught two. I’m sure I would have learned from the 2nd section per week, but the marginal benefit from 0th to 1st is much bigger than 1st to 2nd, and splitting the TA load across more people meant a lot more people got that 0th to 1st experience.

My view is that the CS department set a bad precedent that wasn’t entirely bad. Eight hour TAs are not a good fit for the entire UC Berkeley campus, since it’s pretty clear that if it was universalized, no one would get fee remission or childcare benefits. However, for the unique situation the CS department was in, the outcome wasn’t terrible. As much as I’ve mentioned budget issues, the CS department has it pretty good, relative to other departments. Donors for CS are pretty rich, and I know several students who funded their education through tech company summer internships. Strong students could get $7,000 a month or more during the summer, often with a housing stipend, and that could cover in-state tuition, housing, and food until the next summer if you planned your budget right, even accounting for the insanity of Bay Area rent. Most departments do not have this luxury.

The problem was that departments that didn’t have these luxuries would and were tempted to adopt similar policies, in a bid to fix budget problems of there own. Charts from UAW’s page show that the statistics department was starting to shift to the CS model. I think it’s good for the university to have 8 hour TA appointments go away, but I think it’s bad for the CS department to lose them.

What’s Going to Happen Next?

It’s still uncertain, but here’s my understanding based on discussion in the Berkeley Facebook student groups.

First of all, existing TAs working less than 10 hours per week will continue to work the same amount, along with fee remissions. There is a contract negotiated by the union that prevents TAs from losing their jobs in the middle of the semester, so for now, this semester will play out as before.

Starting next semester, TA hours are going to get more expensive. To minimize cost per hour, departments are incentivized to hire fewer TAs that work longer hours. Fee remission is a fixed cost paid once per student per semester, so you want that student to work as much as you can hire them for. In CS, this historically means 20 hours per week, but I’ve recently learned that Berkeley has 30 hour / week appointments in other departments, so it could go even higher. Fewer undergrad TAs will get to talk to professors, and fewer undergrads will sign up in the first place. If the only TA options were 20 hour appointments, I likely wouldn’t have taken any of them in my senior year, due to other time commitments.

The administration will either need to allocate more TA budget, or CS class sizes will need to shrink. Historically, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the UC system and expect it to raise the budget by a token amount that doesn’t cover the shortfall. CS class enrollment was already effectively at capacity with the 8 hr / week loophole, so it has to drop. The math I saw was that four 8 hour TAs cost the same as one 20 hour TA. If the budget doesn’t increase, a shift to 20 hour TAs means 62.5% of the teaching hours as last semester. This is pretty crazy and I have no idea how they’ll even figure out enrollment.

I’d like the union to negotiate higher pay per hour, in exchange for fee remissions, because one of the big lessons is that welfare cliffs can lead to bad consequences. If this happened, it would fix much of my issues with the current status quo, since professors could go back to offering many smaller TA appointments. However, it seems very unlikely the union will do this, and I’m not even a student anymore, so it’s not like I have much say in this.

As with pretty much any story combining “UC Berkeley” with “budget”, it’s going to be a huge mess. Hopefully, this made it clearer why this decision was not a clear black-and-white victory for the workers, as much as some want to treat it that way.