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Davis, California

Monday, May 27, 2024

Graduate student TAs claim breaches of contract

Union represented graduate students say they are putting in more hours than they are contractually obligated to work.

Tim Gutierrez, candidate for Davis campus head steward of United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865 and graduate student in the sociology department, said there are three main reasons for this – Teaching Assistants’ investment in quality education, university budget cuts and a fear of retribution from faculty.

“The way the grievance process works right now is incomplete because there is a power dynamic going on beyond simply boss and worker,” Gutierrez said. “It makes a lot of people reluctant to file grievances because they might need something from their professor later on and they don’t want to create an adversarial relationship.”

According to Article 31: Workload of the UAW contract agreed to by UC, there is a maximum workload for Academic Student Employees (ASEs). ASEs include TAs, special readers, teaching fellows, community teaching fellows, nursery school assistants and department associates.

ASEs who work a 50 percent appointment or less cannot be assigned a workload of more than 40 hours in any one week or assigned to work more than eight (8) hours in any one day. The number of hours worked in excess of twenty (20) hours per week may not total more than 50 hours per quarter or 77 hours per semester. Additionally, those at 50 percent appointment cannot be assigned a workload of more than 220 hours per quarter – 340 hours for a semester.

However, some graduate students say these numbers aren’t strictly followed.

There is a four-step grievance process to address these violations. According to Article 12: Grievance and Arbitration of the contract, the first step involves an informal meeting between the graduate student, a local union representative and the faculty member.

If this doesn’t resolve the issue, ASEs can submit a formal complaint to the campus labor relations office. If there is still no resolution, they can file a written appeal to labor relations. The last option is to involve a neutral, third-party arbitrator.

The union is designed to help graduate students feel comfortable speaking out against contract violations, said Molly Ball, union representative for UC Davis and graduate student in the English department.

“[UAW is] the channel which can stand up and back them,” Ball said. “That’s what the union is for.”

However, a current graduate student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that fear of retaliation is an “ethical issue.”

“You can’t [speak out] and in some cases you don’t want to,” she said. “[Faculty] do have power over you and where you go with your future.”

Fear of retribution from a faculty member isn’t the only reason that TAs don’t speak out against workload violations, Gutierrez said. TAs often remain silent in the interest of their students.

“We want to provide a quality education and if we are doing too much work, [we] have a choice between either grading assignments with no feedback at all or taking the time to write constructive feedback and going over [our] hours – essentially providing free labor for the university,” Gutierrez said.

Put in that position, most graduate students feel pressured into working hours for free, Gutierrez said.

Margaret Ferguson, professor of English, acknowledged that TAs are sometimes overworked and said she is disappointed when she hears of graduate students who feel reluctant to voice their concerns.

“Some faculty members ask students to grade more papers [than is possible in 20 hours per week] and don’t realize how much time it is taking,” Ferguson said.

“I feel uncomfortable when I hear of professors who have their TAs do all their grading; grading even a few papers helps the faculty member know what the problems are in the students’ comprehension of the assignment and in norming the grades,” she added in a later e-mail interview.

Daraka Larimore-Hall, president of UAW 2865 and graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, said he had never heard of ASEs feeling uncomfortable speaking out against workload violations.

While there is no one solution to every problem, the grievance procedure is successful overall because most issues are resolved informally, he said.

Ball is also a firm believer that the system works when utilized properly.

Gutierrez, however, said the main reason the grievance process is ineffective is because of greater university issues.

“Because of budget cuts, because of the privatization, because of a lot of things that are going on policy wise within the university, they are really trying to squeeze as much out of us as they possibly can and they are also trying to squeeze as much out of the faculty as they possibly can,” Gutierrez said.

Still, these workload violations could be due to professors who do not know the specifics of graduate students’ contracts, Larimore-Hall said.

Ferguson suggested a proactive approach by faculty as a solution, but that students should also talk to faculty members when problems do arise.

“[It] requires faculty to anticipate problems before they come up,” she said. “I encourage my graduate students to talk to faculty members first. Students who don’t feel comfortable should see the director of graduate studies rather than suffering in silence.”

Some UAW members said one problem that leads to work overload is that ASEs aren’t always familiar with the courses to which they are assigned.

“We don’t choose which classes we are going to work for, at least in my department,” Gutierrez said. “Professors can’t expect us to walk in being familiar with the assignments or with their style of anything.”

The English department has taken steps to avoid workload violations, Ferguson said. It has a rule, which states that for any given set of papers or tests, the faculty grades 20 to 30. Ferguson said she didn’t know of other departments that do this and that this rule is not stipulated in the contract. The number of TAs in the department prompted the rule’s implementation.

Robert Powell, chair of the UC Davis division of the Academic Senate, said that while the role of the Academic Senate is to supervise graduate students in their studies and projects, it is not part of the union. As a result, he has never heard of workload violations occurring before.

Gutierrez said that overall, public education is the main victim of these violations.

“We have a slogan that we pull out: our working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” he said. “If we are overworked, the quality of education declines.”

MAX ROSENBLUM can be reached at managing@theaggie.org.


  1. I think what’s striking here is Gutierrez’ characterization of graduate students as total whimps. Why does he think so little of the members of his union- and publicly insult them on top of that? I personally find that rather offensive.

  2. I think what’s striking here is not that there is a real confusion in the nature of relationship between profs and grad students: that is sort of obvious, coming from the long history of the university as preceding the modern business form, so it still has vestiges of the guild relation of master/apprentice that disguise the basic labor relation of boss/worker. To deal with that, the first step is to give every teacher an index card to tape over their desk with the hours limits.

    But what is most remarkable in this article is the gap between what the ASEs report here (and elsewhere, I believe) and what their union president claims to know. If I know of ASEs uncomfortable with their workload (as do many other UC teachers) then the ignorance of the union president indicates that Mr. Larimore-Hall must be either disingenuous or troublingly out of touch with the rank and file. Were I in the union, this would be a matter of real concern to me.


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