Unionization basics

How do I stay informed and get involved?

  1. Visit this site regularly as we will be updating it throughout the campaign!
  2. Subscribe to our newsletter to find out about the latest updates, events, giveaways, and more! (we won't spam you, you can unsubscribe anytime)
  3. Have a story about a workplace issue you want to share? We would love to hear from you.
  4. Already know you want to sign a card? Click here!
  5. Want to volunteer/help organize? Find out how you can help!
  6. Come say hi! OrganizeUW hosts a weekly union social (“Stammtisch”) plus various other events throughout the term. You can meet some of the organizers, learn about the campaign, and have fun and make new friends in the process.

Please check the Contact page for current info about socials and other events. In addition to coming to Stammtisch, email or social media DM is the best way to reach us to subscribe to the newsletter, ask a question, submit a story, sign up to volunteer, get help signing a card, or talk to an organizer about any other questions you have.

What is a union?

A union is an association of workers. It can take several forms, but the single basic unit of a union is an association of workers who are united by their work.

In Ontario, workers forming a union are organized through identifying themselves as having a common employer, work, or work-related economic interest such as being employed by the same employer, in the same place, doing the same work, or having the same economic interests when it comes to the work they do.

Unions are structures for economic democracy in the workplace. They come in many configurations and sizes. The main goal of a union is having a collective say over working conditions. This is usually achieved in negotiating a collective agreement, coming under the regulation of the Ontario Labour Relations Act and engaging with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

What is a local?

Workers who have organized an association in their workplace and join CUPE are brought together under a single democratic structure called a “local”.With over 700,000 members, CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) is Canada’s largest union. It brings together workers in thousands of locals.

As a strong and democratic union, CUPE is committed to improving the quality of life for workers in Canada. People working together to form local unions built CUPE. They did so to have a stronger voice – a collective voice – in their workplace and in society as a whole. CUPE members have been together for over 50 years.

We do different jobs that require different skills. We are diverse – from all sorts of backgrounds in all corners of the country. But, we are connected by a common purpose: to make lives better for working people, their families, and all of our communities.

What is a collective agreement?

A collective agreement is a written contract negotiated and agreed between the union and employer that details for workers and the employer their rights and responsibilities when it comes to work.

The collective agreement outlines things such as: wages, benefits, hours of work, vacation and holidays, seniority, how to handle disagreements, health and wellness accommodations, etc. It ensures that everyone receives equal treatment by the employer and an accountability process if the agreement is violated. You will have the opportunity to democratically elect your co-workers to serve on a committee to bargain your collective agreement, and you will vote on its ratification.

What can we gain from union representation?

First and foremost, we will be able to negotiate a collective agreement that reflects the nature of our work, stipulating terms and conditions that must be respected by our employer, the uWaterloo administration. Arbitrary decisions and actions by an employer will not be permitted with respect to the contents of the contract. We will have a collective voice and be able to make democratic decisions about our workplace.

Unionized graduate students at other universities throughout Canada have made great strides through negotiations, including benefits such as child care and eye care, assistance funds for international students and for professional development, intellectual property, and academic freedom rights, to name only a few.

Who is organizing this union campaign?

The campaign was started by a small but passionate group of graduate students who wish to improve conditions for student workers at uWaterloo. We come from various faculties, departments, programs, and backgrounds. Many of us have been in a union at a prior workplace (academic and non-academic), and thus have direct experience of the protections and benefits union support provides. Others of us have worked in unionized workplaces in which we were excluded from membership due to our status as temporary/contract/precarious workers; this has shown us the flip side of how lacking such equal protection leaves us vulnerable as workers. Our grassroots group is student-driven, and over time has grown as more and more students become engaged.

Please contact us at if you want to help! All contributions, big and small, are welcome!

What specific issues drove students to organize a grassroots campaign?

TAs, RAs, and Sessionals at uWaterloo have been concerned about various issues around our working conditions, including a lack of grievance process that can lead students to fear retaliation for speaking up about those working conditions. Issues of course vary from department to department, but many students report:

  • working more than the hours set out in our contract/agreement (overwork)
  • not being paid for overtime, extra work, or mandatory training
  • lack of, or inconsistent, training
  • claw-backs of sessional or TA pay in some departments
    • e.g. if a student receives an external grant, or having the difference between TA and sessional rates reduced from year-end funding
  • total pay and compensation below the poverty line, especially considering skyrocketing housing costs
  • lack of parity of hourly pay in contrast with other universities
    • e.g. at the start of the campaign in 2020, TA rates at uWaterloo were about $10/hr lower than comparable schools in Ontario, including at Laurier. Since then, advocacy by OUW organizers caused UW to implement a pay increase, but it soon became clear that not all students would benefit - proving once again how as workers we still lack any real say in our workplace and the decisions that directly and significantly impact our lives every day.
  • discrepancies, delays, and lack of accountability/transparency in payment for work
  • poor categorization of students as online/sessional instructor
    • e.g. teaching three small online classes but being paid for only one; no additional pay for teaching a whole course as a sessional, despite the increased responsibility and workload of being the “instructor of record”
  • general lack of fairness and transparency with regards to work assignments
  • inadequate health, safety, and benefits
  • insufficient (enforceable) protections against discriminatory practices

and most importantly, right now, support in advocating for labour protections as we navigate through an increasing precarious work environment as a result of COVID-19 - all of these are issues we face in our department/the university at large, which could be mitigated to a great degree by a legally binding collective agreement and the support of student advocates from within our own ranks, working with the support of the union. Students and workers want to be able to collectively bargain with the university to ensure we are recognized as the economic powerhouse we are, and fight for recognition and good working conditions.

How will a collective agreement protect my interests as an academic worker?

The following are achievements that have been negotiated by TAs at other CUPE locals in Ontario:

  1. Academic freedom language
  2. Standardized, fair, and regulated hiring practices
  3. Standardized hours of work and protections against overwork
  4. Paid training and overtime pay
  5. Wage rate increases, including adjustments for rises in tuition or cost of living
  6. Sickness, parental, and other leaves
  7. Health, dental, and eyeglass benefits packages
  8. Added mental health benefits/supports
  9. UHIP rebates for international students to offset costs compared to OHIP
  10. Improved accessibility procedures, services, and supports
  11. Remuneration (i.e. pay) for union work helping support fellow workers
  12. Intellectual property rights
  13. Anti-harassment language
  14. Health and safety supports
  15. A general financial aid fund for TAs
  16. Targeted financial aid funds for students who are unfunded, need immigration assistance, struggling with high childcare or medical costs, victims of sexual or domestic violence, undergoing gender transition, and more

These are just a sample of all that has been achieved through decades of collective bargaining. For concrete examples of the current benefits and rights TAs enjoy at other schools, you can visit CUPE 3902 (UofT), CUPE 3903 (York), and CUPE 3906 (McMaster). In addition, you can find the contact information and collective agreements for all local across Canada at CUPE.ca/locals.

What does it mean to sign a union card? Is there a cost?

Signing a card means you are:

  1. applying for membership in CUPE
  2. indicating that you support a union being formed in the workplace.

There is no cost to sign.

Signing is an act of solidarity that indicates you wish to support and become a member of a union of your fellow workers at UWaterloo, and thus plan to vote “yes” when the campaign reachs the certification stage.

It is completely confidential, meaning that the university administration has no way to discover whether or not you sign.

OUW's goal is to reach every potential member so that all TAs and RAs have the chance to learn about unionization and get all the information they need to make an informed decision for themself.

I'm interested! How do I sign up?


Yay! To sign up, click this link or on the black and gold Sign-Up button in the menu at the top of all pages on this website. After you complete the OUW registration form you will be re-directed to AdobeSign to fill in a virtual PDF of the CUPE Membership Application (aka “card”). AdobeSign is used because it is required by the Ontario Labour Relations Board for the card to be considered official and legally valid. The last step is to confirm your signature by verifying your email. Within a few minutes you will get an email from AdobeSign with the subject line that begins“Please confirm your signature…". Click the link in the message that says “confirm my email address”, and BAM, you're done!


OUW organizers hold frequent social, informational, and other outreach events on campus, where you can sign a paper membership card quickly and easily, as well as ask any questions you have about the campaign. Check out our social media to find out about upcoming events near you.

Need help?

If you're having technical issues or are not sure how best to fill out the card, the [step-by-step guide[https://organizeuw.org/post/how-to-sign-a-card-tutorial/] or troubleshooting FAQ may be of assistance.

If you'd like to chat with someone directly to get more information or need assistance signing a card, please reach out to us via DM or email and an organizer will be happy to connect with you individually!