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By Andrew Tonkovich and Harya “Koko” Dillon

Welcome, UC Irvine undergrads — or welcome back! — to your public education and, yes, to our jobs.  We academic student-workers (“teaching assistants” and “tutors”) and lecturers wish you good luck this academic year in your studies and participation in cultural and club activities, vigorous political engagement and, like many other UCI students, paying for exorbitant UC fees with a part-time job, too.  

Indeed, you are probably a worker as well as a student.  Someday, you will be just a worker or, perhaps, a manager.  Either way, I’ll take this opportunity to remind you of one of the best-kept secrets at UC Irvine and most places of higher education: you attend classes, perform library research and benefit from office hours at a big, vigorously-democratic labor union job site that employs teaching professionals.  It’s a working environment created for most employed here by the unions we belong to and pay dues to.  They secure and protect our livelihoods, including salaries, benefits, protections and working conditions, all through collective bargaining with the University of California.  

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that, likely because until now, nobody has gone out of their way to explain it to you.  But let’s step back and review the three categories of trained, talented professionals teaching at UCI: Senate faculty, lecturers and academic student-workers.  I’ll bet you didn’t know, however, that academic student-workers teach more than half of the classes you take at UCI.  It’s why we say “UCI works because we do!”  Alas, labor history and labor justice education get little attention in the welcome literature, orientations and Anteater celebrations organized for students.  

That’s too bad, because as you pursue education and, eventually, research, graduate or professional school and a career, you’ll likely be represented by a labor union, whether you eventually become a pharmacist, social worker, engineer or, yes, teacher.  Even doctors and health care professionals at UCI’s Student Health Center are organizing to secure their own union!  And if you become a manager, become self-employed, become an entrepreneur or otherwise a “boss,” you’ll be required to negotiate with people represented by organized labor.

Academic student-workers at this institution are represented by United Auto Workers 2865 (UAW).  It’s a long story, but they chose to affiliate with a strong union so that the 12,000 tutors, readers, and TAs system-wide could vote on the collective bargaining agreement which established important things such as pay, benefits, rights and protections. The agreement means the university can’t take advantage of or prefer one TA over another  ̶ “divide and conquer”  ̶  and assures fairness and best practices for all, including the university and the people who hire us.

Lecturers, also called contingent faculty, number about 400 at UCI alone, and are employed in big numbers in the School of Humanities, including the composition, academic English, foreign language and nearly every other department.  Forty or so librarians (some of the best anywhere) also belong to the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), the bargaining unit for those education workers.

In the early weeks of the quarter we are encouraging our members–TAs, lecturers and librarians–to introduce themselves to you not only as instructors, but also as proud union members who work in a pro-union public sector workplace.  Their work is important to your success,  but beyond their excellent labor, their example of collective democratic workplace representation is also worth acknowledging, and an instructive (pun intended) example. Even now, lecturers are currently negotiating with the University of California to further strengthen our contract.  We hope to make our work lives as non-tenured part-time faculty more stable and secure so we can stay committed to providing excellent educations, and we stand in solidarity with our fellow teachers.

I thought you should know that.  For more about labor organizing at UCI, ask — who else? — your teachers!


Andrew Tonkovich is a Lecturer in Composition and president of UC-AFT Local 2226.  Harya “Koko” Dillon is a Ph. D. candidate in Planning, Policy and Design, and UAW 2865 Recording Secretary.

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