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 (we won't spam you with too many emails!).
  3. Have a story about a workplace issue you want to share (anonymity possible)? We would love to hear from you.
  4. Already know you want to sign a card? Click here.
  5. Want to volunteer/help organize? You can find out more here!

Email us at organizeuw@joincupe.org to join the email list, ask a question, submit a story, volunteer, get help signing a card, etc.

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.

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 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. Women and men 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 organizeuw@joincupe.org 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. TA rates at uWaterloo are about $10/hr lower than comparable schools in Ontario, including Wilfrid Laurier University
  • discrepancies, delays, and lack of accountability/transparency in payment for work
  • poor categorization of students as online/sessional instructors
    • 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.
  4. Wage rate increases.
  5. Health, dental, and eye-glass benefits packages.
  6. Remuneration for union work.
  7. A financial aid fund for TAs.
  8. Intellectual property rights.
  9. Anti-harassment language.
  10. Health and safety supports.

I'm interested! How do I sign up?

If you are ready to sign up, you can click here to request a card. After you submit this form, you will receive an email from CUPE with the official electronic card attached. The subject line will start “Signature requested on” and Adobe Sign is used to sign, as required by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Please fill the card in as soon as you get it.

Signing a card is quick and completely confidential, meaning that the university administration has no way to discover whether or not you sign. Membership cards will also be available at events, information tables, and from organizers when the pandemic threat is over.

If you would like more information, or if you need assistance signing a card (e.g. due to accessibility needs or technical issues), please contact us at organizeuw@joincupe.org. An organizer will get in touch to help you.

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.

I filled out the sign-up form, but I didn't get an email with the electronic card to sign. What should I do?

Filling out the sign-up form here is the first step in a two-part process. When you submit the form it serves as a card request, and is sent to CUPE clerical. You should then receive an email from CUPE with the official electronic card attached. The subject line will start with “Signature requested on” and the card will look like a PDF document. Adobe Sign is used for signing, as required by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Finally, if your card was successfully signed, you should get a confirmation email. The subject line will start with “Completed:".

The process we are using is new, as running a digital card-signing campaign only became possible in Ontario earlier this year due to a court decision (this was not related to COVID-19 - but is very lucky timing for us!). This means UW is the first in the province (if not Canada) to do a large, fully online unionization campaign! However, this process has not been without a few challenges, including the need for a two-step process, which is necessitated by Labour Board requirements.

If you didn't get the email in step two, here are some troubleshooting tips:

  • Make sure you filled out all three tabs of the card request form.
  • An email is required to be able to receive the card. Non-UW email is recommended for privacy reasons, though you may use your UW email if you prefer.
  • It is advisable to give a backup contact method (e.g. cell phone number or secondary email) so organizers can contact you if there are any issues with your card (however, only name and email are required at minimum to sign up).
  • Check your junk/spam folder to see if the email went there. The subject line will start with “Signature requested on:”
  • If you aren't sure if you filled out the form correctly, you can just resubmit it. This isn't a problem, as organizers and CUPE will see and fix any duplicate entries to ensure no one signs twice.

Organizers also periodically check the list and send out emails to people who it appears completed the first, but not the second, step of the card-signing process. This is to help you ensure your name is counted as a supporter. If you get such an email from us, this is why! :)

If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to us at any point by email at organizeuw@joincupe.org. We will be glad to assist you!

I signed my card using Adobe Sign, but I didn't get a a confirmation email. What should I do?

If you filled out and submitted the PDF card using Adobe Sign, but didn't get the confirmation email, you can try clicking the link in the email to “sign” the PDF again. It may be best to try a different method the second time (e.g. drawing your signature instead of taking a photo).

If clicking the link gives an error message “This document has already been signed”, but you don't have the confirmation email, you can re-do the initial card request form (see FAQ above), or contact us to check if your card was received. CUPE clerical can re-send the email/generate a new card.

Organizers also periodically check the list and send out emails to people who it appears completed the first, but not the second, step of the card-signing process. This is to help you ensure your name is counted as a supporter. If you get such an email from us, this is why! :)

If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to us at any point by email at organizeuw@joincupe.org. We will be glad to assist you!

How is my privacy protected?

The confidentiality of the vote and card signer information is protected by law.

A Labour Board Officer holds the vote and this officer ensures that there is no interference by the employer or the union to intimidate or influence the vote. The voting process is confidential and is similar to Provincial and Federal elections. No one will ever know how you voted and at no time during the process will your employer know whether or not you have signed a membership card.

The campaign database of who has signed is closely guarded, and the only person who will know you signed is you, the person who asked you to sign (if applicable), and a small group of key organizers. This would be the same as with physical card-signing. A list of who signed (or didn't sign) will never be published or otherwise shared publically; to do so would not only be illegal, but also a breach of privacy.

You will need to submit at minimum your name and an email address in order to request and then sign a card. Non-UW email is recommended for your privacy, however you may use your UW email if preferred. Organizers will use your email to a) send you the card and confirmation of signing from CUPE clerical, b) contact you if there are any issues with the card-signing process (see FAQs above), and c) send occasional newsletter updates. You can unsubscribe from email updates at any time. If you have any questions or concerns about privacy and your personal information, please contact us at organizeuw@joincupe.org.