Concerns and misconceptions about unionization

I've been told that unions can't improve my working conditions - is that true?

A union will certainly improve your working conditions by bargaining for things such as: predictable schedules, protection from being fired without reason, fair and transparent workplace policies that apply to everyone, and enhanced wages and benefits.

In addition, some of the minimum benefits you now receive from your employer are a result of people like you working together through unions over the last 100 years: benefits such as the weekend, minimum wage laws, right to pensions, vacation pay, human rights legislation, and health and safety regulations.

Because UWaterloo is virtually the only non-unionized major university in Canada, our working conditions are far behind our peer institutions, who have many long-standing protections workers at UW don't have, through both their negotiated collective agreements as well as the increased rights and protections unionized workers gain under the Labour Relations Act.

In contrast, graduate and sessional workers at UW have no legal mechanism, and therefore leverage, to make UW come to the table and bargain with us for concrete and enforceable workplace standards. We're left to settle for the lower standard of rights we receive through the Employment Standards Act as non-unionized workers, and which we must attempt to enforce on our own as individuals.

I've been told that CUPE is an outsider who is unfamiliar with our workplace - is that true?

Several student workers who are tired of being treated unfairly and feeling disrespected at work reached out to CUPE to help us improve our workplace. Our unionization campaign has been driven and run by grassroots, volunteer graduate (and later, sessional) organizers from day one, just like our union local will be once our campaign succeeds.

Under CUPE's constitution, locals are chartered, independent organizations of workers, which is a key reason we chose CUPE from multiple options to be our preferred union partner for this campaign. You can read more about CUPE, their democratic member-driven structure, role in supporting OrganizeUW and members of CUPE locals across Canada, and more in this FAQ.

Together, we and you, our co-workers, are the union. CUPE is there to support us as workers in our workplace and serve in an advisory role during the card-signing campaign. Our union's job is/will be to hear our coworkers’ concerns and frustrations and find and resource a solution to deal with them with our employer.

In sum, the union is not a third party, but comprised of your fellow colleagues and classmates in the UW community, who want a stronger voice and greater say over our working conditions and everyday lives. We're graduate students, sessional instructors, post-docs, etc. just like you.

Can I be interrogated, disciplined, or even fired because of my support for the union?

No, absolutely not. It is your fundamental right to join and to be represented by a union. This right is protected by law.

You have the right to:

  • Freedom of association, which is what “enables individuals to come together and collectively to express, promote, pursue and even defend common interests”(McBride, 2005, p. 18)
  • join a trade union of your own choice and participate in its lawful activities
    • This is protected by the Ontario Labour Relations Act and Canada Labour Code.
  • talk about the union with your co-workers
    • Because freedom of expression (speech) and association are your rights under the Charter, the right to speak about freedom of association is also protected under the law.

It is illegal for an employer to fire employees because you have chosen to engage in union activity or to discriminate against you in any other way. This includes your supervisor, department, faculty/school, or the university administration; they cannot interrogate, discipline, retaliate against, or remove your employment contract for supporting, joining, or becoming involved with a union.

All employers, including UW, are legally responsible for the actions of their employees, and can be held liable if they allow intimidation, coercion, or pressure to be placed on individual workers, as these actions constitute implicit threats of retaliation.

If you experience any intimidation or discipline by anyone as a consequence of your support for the union, please contact us ASAP. CUPE’s skilled legal team will protect you.

What can the employer do while we're forming our union?

While the employer may share their opinion about our union organizing campaign, they are prohibited from:

  • Asking whether someone has joined or is thinking of joining the union - e.g. “Have you signed a card?”
  • Asking about who participates in union meetings and activities - e.g. “Have you spoken with a union representative?”
  • Calling someone into the office or into a meeting to talk about the union, unless that person asks for a meeting;
  • Asking about who supports or is part of the union organizing campaign;
  • Contacting employees outside of work to talk about the union;
  • Asking about the status of the union organizing campaign - e.g. “Who has signed a card?”
  • Disciplining a union supporter for something that is normally acceptable or tolerated;
  • Promising a positive outcome for voting NO or a negative outcome for voting YES

It is very unlikely that the employer will violate these provisions – after all, there are already other unionized workers on campus and UWaterloo is aware of the legal requirements with respect to unionization.

When we form our union, we’ll be tipping the balance of power in our favour. It’s no secret that it will get the employer’s attention. Here’s a sample of what we expect to hear from the employer when we file our application to certify our union.

Myth #1: “The Union” will come in and change everything.

Once we unionize, we are the union. There’s no third party – just us. And we’ll elect representatives, and then together we’ll decide what’s important, what needs to change, and how we want our elected representatives to work with the employer.

Some employers also say that the “third party” union will change the working relationships but the reality is that once we form a union at the University of Waterloo, the employer will still be our employer and we’ll still work with our co-workers, professors, and management. After all, the valuable work we do still needs to get done. But we'll be doing all that with the support of Canada's largest union and a legally enforceable collective agreement that the employer can’t change unless the majority of us and our co-workers agree.

Myth #2: We can work together better without a union and the union will ruin “collegiality.”

Once employers hear about a union organizing drive, they often respond by saying that they’d really like to hear from us and that they’d like us to remember their “Open Door Policy”. Sometimes they even create joint committees and policy reviews. While these things may give us some input, they still leave the final decision in the employer’s hands.

Once we’re unionized, we’ll have an equal seat at the table and there will be ways to resolve disputes through a neutral decision-maker who will have the final say, not the employer. And we’ll work through that process with our elected union representatives, not by being siloed alone in our departments or faculties.

Academic institutions like to boast that they work together through “collegiality.” This can still be true when we are unionized. We will still respect our academic peers, colleagues, professors and administration. And we hope they will extend the same respect back to us and recognize us as an equal, valuable partner. The union solidifies the mechanisms to ensure that is the case.

Another common message from employers is to acknowledge our concerns and to promise to do better. Many of us have worked as TAs, RAs, or both at UWaterloo for several terms or even years. And we’ve heard how many have brought concerns and questions forward but had little or no response from the employer. If the university ever truly intended to address our concerns or answer our questions, we think they would have done it by now.

We don’t make unfounded promises but we also don’t see why we can’t have the same or better working conditions as other Tas and RAs at other universities. And CUPE Local Unions set their own dues rate and initiation fees. The most a CUPE initiation fee can be is a one-time payment of $10 and the average dues rate in CUPE is 1.5% of regular wages. Also, union dues are tax deductible. As for legal fees, some employers do choose to spend money on lawyers but the University of Waterloo has Human Resources (HR) staff who are trained to work with unionized workers – after all, there are already other unionized workers on campus!

Myth #4: Voting “yes” for the union means you will be going on strike.

The decision to go on strike – ever – is in our hands. Once we unionize through a ‘yes’ vote now, we will then elect representatives from among our co-workers and begin negotiating our first collective agreement. In the meantime, all current pay, usual hiring processes, and working conditions are legally ‘frozen.’ We would only proceed to a strike vote if (and only if) the bargaining process breaks down and we can’t reach an agreement with the employer. There are also alternatives to strikes such as arbitration and mediation. A vote ‘yes’ right now is simply saying that we want to unionize and have a collective voice to make sure that all TAs and RAs across UWaterloo get a fair deal.

Myth #5: You can't just “try out” a union.

The process we’ve initiated is called ‘certification’ and the opposite (deciding we don’t want to be unionized) is ‘de-certification.’ Employers often want workers to think it’s difficult to de-certify but the truth is that it’s the same process we’re in the middle of now: card signing followed by a vote, all on a specific schedule. The power to make these changes is ours. It’s a very typical response for employers to fail to acknowledge the power we actually have.

What changes exactly are organizers seeking? How can I sign a union card without seeing the “fine print”?

One of the most frequent questions we get asked is what specifically we’re hoping to achieve through unionization, i.e. for a list of concrete proposals for changes to policies, procedures, and other terms of employment that we will push for after certification. However, it’s important to understand that fundamentally, a union a democratic association of workers in the workplace, and so until the card campaign succeeds and we go through the negotiation process, we can’t say what exactly will change.

Signing a union card isn't the same as signing a contract to buy a product, where you need to see the “terms and conditions of sale”, or voting for a political party, who run on a specific platform of policy proposals. Instead, it means declaring your support for establishing a democratic structure and process to have a collective say on your working conditions.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have many, many ideas for things that can/should be improved! If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be unionizing, after all. Over the last year we’ve had countless one-on-one and small-group conversations with our colleagues and classmates across campus(es) about the issues they have faced people in their (work) lives, what they would change if they could, and how unionization can (or cannot) realistically help address these issues.

There are many issues that have pushed us towards unionization – too many to fully list here. And the more we talk to our colleagues and classmates, the more we learn about every week.

Fundamentally, we're seeking:

  • respect from UW for our contributions as academic workers;
  • a collective say in workplace decisions that impact us every day;
  • transparent, fair, and enforceable standards;
  • equitable opportunities and treatment for all;
  • a safe, accessible, and healthy workplace;
  • a reasonable, basic standard of living; and
  • a decent minimum work-life balance so we can progress in our studies, fulfill our work commitments, and still be able to have a semblance of a personal life, without sacrificing our health and well-being to do so.

As for specifics, what would need to change to make this vision a reality? Some of the most common things we hear on the “doorsteps” are that we should be able to safely take time off when we get sick; get better support for mental health issues; be protected against harassment and toxic cultures of overwork; receive a living wage that takes into account skyrocketing rents as well as rising food, tuition, and other costs; and receive truly guaranteed (i.e. clawback-free) minimum funding packages. However, these are truly only the tip of the iceberg.

In the end, then the answer to the above question is – whatever we want! It's up to us! We’re seeking whatever we decide to prioritize and negotiate for. This may seem like an unsatisfying answer, if you're someone who prefers certainty ahead of time before taking part in anything. However, as we all know, nothing in life is certain, and in many important ways, it is what you make it. Essentially, our union can and will only achieve what we want it to, and put in the organizing work to bring to fruition.

If you feel strongly about specific changes you want to see happen at UW (awesome!), there will be a myriad of ways to get involved in the local, on the executive, bargaining team, in other committees, or as a steward; we will need passionate people like you so we can achieve our ultimate goal of making UW a better space for academic workers. What that looks like specifically will depend on the unique situation and needs of our members at UW and how we work together to wield our collective power.

I've been told that UW can’t afford to increase wages/benefits, so if we unionize fewer TA/RAs will be hired, leaving us worse off. Is that true?

This is a common argument that employers in all sectors use to discourage employees to unionize. The fact of the matter is that since TAs/RAs at almost all other universities in Ontario are unionized, it is simply untrue that it is too expensive to pay students a living wage. What happens after unionization is that pay, benefits, and working conditions across departments and faculties will be clarified and made more transparent, and jobs will be much more fairly and equitably distributed.

Furthermore, CUPE has seen no evidence of decreased hiring after unionization at other schools - some universities actually see increased hiring. This is because once the administration can no longer benefit from students regularly working beyond their contracted hours, they may actually need to hire more workers to do the work that needs to be done. The university will not suddenly cancel courses simply because we have joined together to get better working conditions - instead, they will be forced to prioritize paying and treating us as the essential academic workers we are!

Unionizing helps ensure we're not overworked to the university’s sole benefit and our own personal detriment. Many students currently suffer personal consequences from overwork like extreme stress/burn-out, delayed progress towards graduation, and reduced ability to succeed in our own courses - all so the university can continue to function according to the status quo.

These are just a few examples of contract provisions that have been successfully negotiated by CUPE locals:

  • requiring a set number of “floater TAs” be hired to fill in when TAs:
    • reach their contracted hours,
    • are off sick/away on leave,
    • have the right to disability accommodations such that it takes more time to complete their duties and they reach their hours sooner, or
    • a course instructor otherwise needs extra assistance above and beyond a TA's normal duties/hours.
  • placing caps on the number of undergraduate students in a tutorial/class (or the ratio of TAs to students), to ensure manageable workloads; and
  • establishing outright job protections that require TA/RA hiring to stay at minimum at the level they were pre-unionization.

These kinds of provisions benefit everyone, by simultaneously improving TA working conditions and maintaining or improving the quality of undergraduate education.

Finally, because the bargaining process is democratic and inclusive, and all members will have a chance to vote on the final result, members would never bargain for (or vote to approve) an agreement that is detrimental to our interests.

Is there any other way that UW could respond negatively, e.g. by weakening or changing “Policy 30 - Employment of Graduate Student Teaching Assistants,” forcing us to bargain just to get back to how things are now? Or by finding a way to claw back pay raises?

It is important to understand that the right to unionize is enshrined in the law, and so there are protections in place against retaliation by an employer. Employers are legally required to bargain in good faith and cannot try to sneakily find ways later to circumvent provisions negotiated in the collective agreement, such as by clawing back wage increases from grants (something no other university gets away with). And if they do so, they can be subject to hefty fines and penalties. CUPE has an expert legal team who aren't afraid to take on large employers who engage in unfair labour practices or discriminate against workers, and they have a long history of successfully arguing cases at the labour board to enforce worker rights and further advance legal protections for workers.

When an application for union certification is filed with the Labour Board, there is a statutory freeze on all current employment terms and conditions that lasts throughout the time it takes to negotiate the first collective agreement. The university will not be permitted to make any changes to any aspect of our work, including those outlined in things like Policy 30 (which despite recent changes still doesn't begin to approach the strength of language or enforceability of the most basic boilerplate collective agreement). What this means in practice is that unionizing will never leave you worse off than you were before – the current state of affairs serves as the official starting point from whence negotiations on improvements will begin – the only way to go is up!

Finally, a collective agreement is bargained by a committee who are democratically elected from among the membership. All members are kept informed and have opportunities for input throughout the process, such as via surveys to identify the list of key workplace issues we want addressed, and help prioritize based on which ones are most pressing. Once a tentative agreement is reached it must be approved by a vote of the membership, after which it becomes a legally binding document under which the employer and union mutually agree to operate. This democratic and inclusive process ensures our voices are heard at the bargaining table and means that members would never bargain for (or vote to ratify) an agreement that leaves us worse off.

Unionization is the only way to guarantee the University must take our voices seriously during this time of crisis, and it gives us enforceable mechanisms to hold them accountable.

Do we really need a union to make things better at UW? I've been told UW is trying to improve things, and forming a union is divisive and will only cause loss of goodwill.

Without action, chronic overwork, mental health suffering, housing insecurity (including homelessness), and profound financial and job market precarity within academia will all grow. COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated many long-standing systemic issues at UW and made real change even more urgent. Meaningfully addressing these issues requires structural change.

We strongly believe a union for TAs, RAs, and sessionals is a key part of this change. Academic unions are a long-standing, proven, legally-protected, achievable mechanism to democratically address systemic problems. Good-faith advocacy work by generations of grads has slowly brought incremental improvements, but these are perpetually vulnerable to unilateral revision or revocation by UW, and unfortunately haven't kept pace with rapid, ongoing societal shifts. Because of frequent turnover, UW is incentivized to simply “wait us out”; they know that it takes time for students and contract faculty to organize and join together to demand better conditions. Thus, by giving public statements of support while offering only minor or inconsequential improvements, UW can stall, wait for all the “fuss to die down”, knowing that every few years, students will graduate and sessionals will move on due to the inherent precarity (and second-tier status) resulting from their temporary contracts. In the meantime, UW remains 100% in control. They can make any changes they want, without any legal requirement that they be permanent and enforceable, implemented in a fully transparent and equitable way, or truly reflect workers’ key priorities.

UW is like many a large employer in that the status quo entails an entrenched power imbalance. They feel they are doing a good job (and many people in the administration obviously do their best), despite the problems we know are widespread and persistent. The fact is, no amount of “asking nicely” or “waiting patiently” has been, is, or will be, sufficient to dislodge such institutional inertia and lead to the changes needed to bring UW up to the level of every other unionized university. In the end, TAs, RAs, and Sessionals at UW still lack the minimum rights, protections, representation, and voice as workers that are standard everywhere else. We deserve dignity at work.

A new approach is needed; workers need help now. By channelling our collective strength into forming our own union, we can make UW a better space workplace and gain recognition as the essential academic workers we are. This doesn't negate the impacts that other forms of advocacy and activism have on campus; indeed they play a vital role. However, they are not mutually exclusive. A union adds concrete tools and protections that we don't currently have, which we can use to make things better for everyone. Through community, collaboration, and solidarity, we can win real improvements like they have at other universities.

I'm concerned about paying dues to CUPE when many students already live below the poverty line. Will we really get value for this money? Isn't there a better way to spend it?

Union dues are a pool of resources that members pay into to make sure that they have the resources to do the things they vote to do. It is money that belongs to workers, even when it's pooled together with everyone else's dues, and both the local and national portions are democratically controlled by workers.

Dues pay for the infrastructure to bargain and enforce the collective agreement and other labour rights, facilitate democracy at work, and support other rights like health and safety, equity, leave, grievance procedures, etc. that we have under the Canadian constitution and provincial labour law. The union also provides professional support through lawyers, research, communications, education programs for members (e.g. how to bargain, run a local, and enforce our rights), and equity officers to support equity rights under the law.

You can find out more about how dues are calculated, charged, spent and kept transparent in here. The total rate for CUPE National and local dues combined is typically ~1.5%-1.6% of base salary per member. It is standard to seek to negotiate a pay raise in the first in the first collective agreement at least equivalent to the base dues rate. Stated another way, dues are factored in to any increase sought at the bargaining table. This means workers don't really pay dues from their current wages at all, rather employers do, as a top-up. Any further increases in pay or benefits are then a real increase kept by employees, while all the legal and support protections the union brings are essentially free of charge!

Therefore, collective dues are a pool of funds that workers as a group would not otherwise have access to without unionizing (asking nicely for a pool of money doesn't typically work), so spending them in another, “better” way isn't really possible.

I've heard unions are mainly profit-driven and just want to grow bigger and bigger to collect more worker dues. Is that true of CUPE?

No, it's not. CUPE is a strong, democratic, professional, reputable public-sector union committed to improving the quality of life for workers in Canada. Furthermore, dues are not actually “paid” to CUPE at all, because it isn't incorporated/a corporation and is entirely non-profit. CUPE is simply the collection of members it represents, not something separate or distinct from them. Each of the 2,300+ independent chartered locals of worker members democratically elect their own leaders from among their colleagues, who then transparently run the day-to-day business of the local on their behalf. This includes jointly deciding how workers’ pooled dues will be allocated based on member priorities.

CUPE's strength comes from the size of its membership, which creates economies of scale and brings efficiencies. New locals are formed by workers joining together to organize where they work, and inviting CUPE to be their union partner. The fact it's growing shows that more and more workers are fed up with their working conditions and want support from Canada's largest union to help them gain a collective say and better representation at work. CUPE's rich history in the labour movement brings a wealth of experience and makes it highly effective at helping workers organize, so that we don't have to needlessly “re-invent the wheel,” delaying or reducing our chances of achieving our goals.

You can read more about CUPE here, including their members, leadership, history, and financials statements. The union’s objectives and how it operates are determined by the constitution, which can only be changed by democratic votes at the Biennial National Convention. While locals have a high level of autonomy, there are strict standards to ensure they maintain proper financial transparency, non-discrimination, and democratic accountability to their members. A union is similar to the Graduate Student Association (GSA) in the sense that you pay dues every semester to the GSA for it to function and represent you, and to fund all the infrastructure necessary to do so. The difference, of course, is that a union has special rights under the law to bargain and enforce a collective agreement that a GSA doesn't, plus union dues are only paid when you're working (earning a paycheque).

CUPE has staff that support workers to stand as equals when it comes to labour relations with large employers like UW. They provide direct support to individuals dealing with issues in the workplace, so that every individual doesn't have to be an expert. This is especially important in the higher education sector, where TAs and RAs only work at the institution for a couple of years and sessionals work 4- and 8-month contracts with no guarantee they'll be re-hired from one term or year to the next. Many academic workers, whether domestic or international, don't have a good understanding of our rights as workers, nor the complications that arise from dual status as a worker and student. This gap in knowledge benefits UW, and they take advantage of it to selectively treat us as students OR employees, whenever it's most convenient for them (e.g. not paying for mandatory training, clawing back wage increases from grants, and much more). Right now, they have no incentive to change; they know that that every year a big chunk of the grad and sessional workforce will turn over, making systemic change nigh on impossible.

In fact, unions exist because workers have no other option to engage with their employers. There is no real government support for workers to enforce our rights. Without a union, you're left to do this on your own as an individual. Whereas employers have resources centralized to support their interests professionally – such as teams of lawyers, communications and PR staff, HR departments, etc. – and have experience dealing with these issues from their perspective over a long time, workers – especially graduate and sessional workers – are short-term by nature and focused on doing our work. This relationship is very one-sided. Unions are the fundamental way we have in society to restore some balance to this situation, and have a proven history of improving working conditions.

In sum, in our view any money paid in dues is well-spent, because it is:

  • a small amount per member
  • on-top of current pay (in effect, the employer pays)
  • improves working conditions
  • gives workers a mechanism to enforce our rights
  • comes bundled with a plethora of services and supports
  • is democratically controlled and transparently spent, and
  • allows workers to leverage our collective power to make things better.

Strength comes in numbers. This unionization campaign is a movement by, of, and for us as academic workers at our workplace. Our only motivation is to use our collective resources more strategically to improve working conditions for all of us and engage with the university, as our employer, on a more balanced and equitable playing field.