Michelle Glowa, UC Santa Cruz teaching assistant (TA) and president of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, has been the only TA in a class of 300 students. It is these conditions that she said constitute “a horrible work environment.”

“I could give very little feedback, couldn’t answer questions, had an optional section that very few people came to until right before the midterm and final and then 150 people would come into the room,” Glowa said. “It was a difficult class for me to support as a teaching assistant and a lot of the students didn’t do well. About a quarter of them ended up not passing the class.”

UAW Local 2865 represents 12,000 Academic Student Employees (ASE) across the UC system –– including graduate and undergraduate tutors, readers, graduate student instructors and TAs. Members of the union work toward negotiating a collective bargaining contract that ensures the pay, benefits, rights and protections of every ASE throughout the UC system.

“Before we had a union, we didn’t have health care, a promise of parental leave [or a] child care fund,” said union member Josh Brahinsky. “Building a union and a community that has power takes a lot of time and energy.”

UAW Local 2865 has a statewide governing body of 10 officers. UAW Local 2865 also has local officers on each campus, three of which are at UCSC.

As union president, Glowa negotiates teaching assistant contracts every three to five years, which set the expectations and terms and conditions of student-worker employment for that period of time.

TAs cannot be asked to work more than 220 hours each quarter, an average of about 20 hours a week, according to UAW’s website. Additionally, they are not to be asked to work more than 40 hours a week, or more than eight hours a day.

“If TAs are asked to work over the limit of the average 20 hours that we’re supposed to work, then we can facilitate conversation between management and TAs to make sure they’re not being overworked, or they’re being paid more,” Glowa said. “That’s a grievance for a violation of the contract.”

Teaching assistants are expected to work on lesson planning, grading, reading, attending lecture, office hours and section all in the expected 20 hours of work per week.

Stephanie Padilla, who works as a TA in the literature department, said many TAs have to go beyond their work hours due to irregularities in class size. Many TAs have trouble balancing their workload and courseload.

“I found myself focusing more on my TA-ship than I was on my own coursework, which isn’t good,” Padilla said. “Am I going to take the time to grade all of these papers and give the feedback I know my students need, or am I going to take the time to focus on my own papers and all of the reading I have to do? What do I prioritize?”

Union members organized class size committees across the state to address the issue and try to advocate for change across thousands of members to avoid TAs feeling personally responsible for fixing the flaws of the university system, Glowa said.

As a union leader, Glowa invests time talking to other TAs around campus and from different departments to get a sense of what is working and what needs to be addressed.

For example, the irregular student-to-TA ratio is an issue in departments ranging from the sciences to the humanities, union member Brahinsky said.

“We try to work with student-workers to empower them to think of the university as a place where they can have a voice,” Glowa said. “We try to create an idea of what kind of university we want to be working for.”

UCSC UAW members work with other unions, student movements and public education advocates across the state to try and make sure the UC continues to be a place where education is accessible, Glowa said.

“Students who are first-time college students, students who come from towns that don’t have well-supported high schools or students who don’t have academic support are the ones who really suffer,” Brahinsky said.

TAs will not spend 100 hours per week teaching because the student-to-TA ratio is the responsibility of the university to fix, Brahinsky said. Glowa added that the workload may get in the way of the workers’ ability to be students as well.

“As employees we need to be able to maintain ourselves and our family and have a quality of life that permits us to focus on teaching and studying as well,” Glowa said.