Unionization basics

How do I stay informed and get involved?

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  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?

We’ve mentioned in other places the general benefits of unionizing. But what about specifics to university student-workers? What have others achieved through the process of unionization and collective bargaining? While we can’t promise all the final details, the comparisons are very promising. Here is an overview of what other student-worker unions have successfully negotiated.


When TAs & RAs discuss income, we usually mean three overlapping issues: the hourly pay rate, the funding package, and wage increases. Hourly pay rate and funding package Our income as students is not just about hourly pay. Some student-workers, graduate students particularly, receive other forms of income through the university such as scholarships, grants, and departmental stipends. In Spring 2021, UW raised the recommended TA hourly rate from $33.89 to $45.00 per hour. However, some student-workers then saw reductions in their other funding which made this wage increase negligible and even resulted in a net decrease for some. What’s possible?

  • Prohibiting the offset of wage increases with reductions in other financial support, as achieved by student-workers at the University of Guelph (CUPE Local 3913). Wage increases On May 1, 2023, UWaterloo implemented approximately a 1% increase to TA & RA income. Inflation and increases to the cost of living and tuition far exceed 1%. Wage increases should at least match the rate of cost of living and tuition increases. What’s possible?
  • As a union, we will have an equal seat at the bargaining table to negotiate real, substantive wage increases. Recently, student-workers at McMaster (CUPE Local 3906) negotiated a 3.5% increase plus a $1.00/hour increase effective December 2022. Similarly, student-workers at Carleton (CUPE Local 4600) negotiated 3% annual increases in each of 3 years starting with and retroactive to September 1, 2022.

Work-Life Balance

When TAs & RAs discuss work-life balance, we usually mean hours of work, scheduling accommodations, and being able to have sufficient time to focus on our own studies & research. Hours of Work When we work more hours than our contract says, we’re effectively reducing our hourly rate or working for free. For example, if our contract says we are paid $45 per hour for 100 hours of work, we would make $4,500 (before taxes) for the semester. If we end up working 120 hours, but still get paid the same $4,500 for the contract, then we effectively only made $37.50 per hour. We should also have some protection against overwork, the pressure to continue working beyond the number of contracted hours and having to attend mandatory training sessions that are unpaid. What’s possible?

  • A clear allocation of hours and systematized tracking of hours, as achieved by student-workers at these universities in Ontario: University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902), York (CUPE Local 3903), McMaster (CUPE Local 3906), Ottawa (CUPE Local 2626), Guelph (CUPE Local 3913), Carleton (CUPE Local 4600), Trent (CUPE Local 3908).
  • Getting paid for training, like at the University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902) where TAs are paid a Training Rate of $45.99 for Foundations Training & Orientation that’s in addition to their TA work. Scheduling Accommodations Some TAs and RAs have children and / or other care responsibilities, which makes the planning and carrying out of their TA and RA responsibilities more challenging than what the university policies may see for a “typical” student-worker. What’s possible?
  • A provision that requires the employer to take “every reasonable effort” to accommodate child care needs, as achieved by student-workers at Guelph (CUPE Local 3913). Time to focus on studies & research Student workers have many commitments for their studies and research and should not have to push those priorities aside due to overwork in their TA or RA roles. What’s possible?
  • Protections against being required to grade during a period prior to and following a dissertation deadline, thesis defense, comprehensive / qualifying exams, or equivalent, as achieved by student-workers at University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902), York (CUPE Local 3903), and Carleton (CUPE Local 4600).

Hiring Practices

When TAs & RAs discuss hiring practices, we mean the way TA/RA positions are offered, employment security, and how to raise questions and concerns without repercussions. Allocation of TA/RA positions At UW, the process varies for which course you are assigned to TA or what RA work you are assigned. It varies significantly from department to department; faculty to faculty; and even year to year. Transparency and accountability of those important decisions is not too much to ask. What’s possible?

  • Clear hiring criteria and clear posting and hiring timelines, as achieved by student-workers at University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902), York (CUPE Local 3903), McMaster (CUPE Local 3906), Ottawa (CUPE Local 2626), Guelph (CUPE Local 3913), Carleton (CUPE Local 4600), and Trent (CUPE Local 3908). Employment Security After being appointed to a position, there are no assurances that we’ll be treated fairly and professionally. Our continued employment - for example, to get another TA/RA position the following semester - is precarious and is subject to an individual’s subjective assessment of us and our work. What’s possible?
  • Provisions that protect student evaluations from affecting hiring or employment decisions and that also separate performance evaluations from discipline so that performance evaluations are focused on supporting improvements, as achieved in most unionized postsecondary institutions. Raising questions and concerns without repercussions The dynamic between student workers and their supervisors or other faculty members is imbalanced. International students experience even greater vulnerability in that relationship. We might worry that being seen as a “complainer” will affect our ability to get TA or RA positions in the future. What’s possible?
  • Elected union representatives from among our co-workers who, according to the law, are the employer’s equal to determine the procedures for concerns and discipline. Representatives (often called “union reps” or “stewards”) to support us through any questions or concerns that need to be raised with the employer .


When we discuss wellbeing, we usually mean improving our current benefits provisions, having sufficient mental health supports, and making sure that international students’ unique needs are addressed. As workers, our employer should support and protect our health and wellbeing. The university benefits from a workforce that is as healthy and well as possible. What’s possible?

  • A reimbursement fund for international students’ UHIP premiums and either an employer-paid Health Care Spending Account or employer-paid benefits plans as achieved by student-workers at University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902), York (CUPE Local 3903), McMaster (CUPE Local 3906), Guelph (CUPE Local 3913).
  • All of the above-listed agreements have coverage for mental health services. Additionally, student-workers at Carleton (CUPE Local 4600) have a mental health top-up to their GSA Plan.
  • Support funds and leaves of absence which are accessible by all members of the bargaining unit, regardless of immigration status, as achieved by student-workers at University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902), York (CUPE Local 3903), McMaster (CUPE Local 3906), Ottawa (CUPE Local 2626), Guelph (CUPE Local 3913), Carleton (CUPE Local 4600), and Trent (CUPE Local 3908).
  • An international workers legal fund, as achieved by the student workers at University of Toronto (CUPE Local 3902) in addition to the more general support fund and leaves of absence.

These are just a few examples of what we know is possible when we form our union. To search through the specifics, you can find the contact information and collective agreements for CUPE Locals across Canada, including the post-secondary bargaining units referenced above, 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!