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UCI Summer Session Teaching Assistants File Union Grievance for Receiving Half-Pay

United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, the union representing tutors, readers, graduate student instructors and teaching assistants at the University of California, filed a grievance to UCI in May concerning the school’s Summer Session teaching assistants receiving half-pay.

UCI Comparative Literature Ph.D. candidate Ashley Call was one of many teaching assistants (TAs) that earned a little over half of their usual salary when teaching a Summer Session class identical to ones they previously taught during the academic year.

Call, who has taught Critical Reading and Rhetoric — also known as Writing 39B — since the 2018 academic year, found it frustrating that the university did not notify her of the significant pay difference beforehand.

“Because I got asked to teach the exact same course, I was expecting around $7,000,” Call said. “The contract said I was going to be making $4,000.”

Since then, Call moved out of Irvine to live with family in Utah. Her reduced summer salary was not enough to support her expenses living in the same city as her university.

“$4,000 isn’t enough to survive a summer, regardless of the pandemic or not,” she said. “[The pandemic] made it even scarier because I couldn’t go out and apply for another job.”

Worse, despite the lesser summer pay, Call’s workload remains unchanged from during the academic year.

“It’s literally the same class I’ve taught for four or five other quarters,” Call said. “It’s the exact same work I do … Same curriculum, same assignments, same everything.”

When Call and UCI English Ph.D. candidate Natalie Barman included these concerns in the union grievance they filed as Head Stewards of UAW 2865 Irvine, Summer Session repudiated their claims.

Assistant Dean and Director of Summer Session Thomas Radmilovich wrote back to them explaining that TAs teaching six-week and 10-week courses were expected to put in the same amount of hours, in spite of the four week difference.

“While these courses are held over a 10 week period, the total number of hours with students, the total instructional content, and the work students are expected to complete is 120 hours, which is the same number of hours for a course taught over six weeks,” the step three grievance letter read.

Article 25 of the UAW 2865 contract states that although Summer Session TAs will receive a rate for working 120 hours, that rate will apply proportionately to courses of different lengths.

According to Call and Barman, Radmilovich stated in a grievance meeting that six-week and 10-week courses were considered equal in workload because 10-week courses were considered a “‘slow soak.’” 

As a 10-week course instructor, Call disagrees.

“He’s implying that it’s a slower pace for the students, though it’s the exact same course that’s taught during the regular school year,” Call said. “There’s no decrease in the amount of work [nor] in the number of requirements for the class. It’s just less pay.”

At the request to be interviewed on the grievance, Radmilovich declined to comment.

At least 15 TAs across different fields — from writing to physical sciences to informatics — also share Call’s outrage in receiving less than what they anticipated.

Another UCI TA  — who requested to not be identified by his name due to concerns over his employment status — expressed similar confusion upon receiving his offer letter. He discovered that his summer salary as a TA managed to be lower than his earnings as a professor’s grading assistant during the school year.

“I thought [that] was a misevaluation of the amount of work I was going to be putting in,” he said.

Like Call, the university did not notify him of the pay difference beforehand. Only when he received his summer offer letter did he find out he was to be making less for doing more work.

“The fact I’m getting paid less than a teaching assistant to actually teach the course just seems very improper,” he said.

In some courses, the term “TA” is defined as “assistant to the instructor.” In others, TAs are the instructors themselves. Rather than helping with grading and clarifying the course material to students, some courses require TAs to be the sole teachers of their classes. Writing 39B, among other summer courses, is one of these types of classes.

“The amount of work that’s put on composition TAs is pretty strenuous,” Call said. “When you’re a TA in composition, you’re the only one that’s teaching, that’s coming up with the curriculum, lesson plans, grades, office hours, everything. They call you a TA because you’re paid less, but you’re basically an instructor.”

Even though UAW 2865 Irvine is fighting for a pay raise that accommodates 10 weeks of work rather than six, the TA who requested to be left unnamed stressed that teaching a 10-week course is actually closer to 14 weeks of work.

“We also have to prepare for the first day of class, which takes time,” he said. “We also have to grade finals, which takes about a week, maybe more … It’s not just the 10 weeks.”

Unlike the UC COLA movement that originated at UCSC, UAW 2865 Irvine is not yet looking to escalate the issue of Summer Session under-compensation into a strike.

“We just want people to know that the university is paying workers less than the amount they’re [working] for, so we can hold the university accountable for that,” Barman said. “There are so many workers at the university who educate undergraduates and they deserve to be treated fairly.”

UAW 2865 sent the grievance to the UC Office of the President (UCOP) last month. According to Barman, it is currently under review by a neutral, third-party arbitrator.

Both Barman and Call hope that by making the grievance known, TAs in a similar position will join UAW 2865’s fight for proportionate Summer Session pay.

“We want anyone who is in a similar position to come forward. Either add their name to the grievance or sign the petition,” Call said.

Together, Barman and Call are confident the grievance will settle in their favor.

“We have a really powerful union and workers who are standing behind this grievance,” Barman said. “We also just have a strong case for why people should be paid for all the work they’re doing over the summer.”

Kaitlin Aquino is a 2020-2021 Opinion Co-Editor. She can be reached at