More about CUPE

Who is CUPE and what is their role in this campaign?

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is Canada's largest trade union and a leader in post-secondary education. It is the largest academic unio in Ontario, representing nearly 40,000 workers across 19 universities. CUPE represents academic workers such as TAs, RAs, postdocs, sessional instructors, language instructors, technicians, and lecturers.

CUPE has staff dedicated to organizing workplaces and is providing resources, research, communications, strategy, logistical, and legal support for the organizing drive. This organizing campaign is led by local students and workers, with the support of CUPE.

Why did student organizers choose CUPE?

After researching various options and speaking to representatives from multiple unions, student organizers collectively decided to ask CUPE for help in the organizing campaign, due to the following key reasons:

  1. CUPE’s status as the largest academic sector-union in Ontario and Canada-wide. This means CUPE understands the unique aspects of working in academia, such as the dual role of TAs as both employees and students. CUPE has extensive experience handling issues faced graduate students and sessionals and a strong track record of success supporting academic workers with bargaining, grievances, and organizing.
  2. CUPE provides excellent services and resources to organizers, members, and locals, including dedicated staff representatives, research and organizing support, financial and legal resources (e.g. strike fund, legal department), member discounts, educational workshops, and more. Because Waterloo is the last university in Canada where TAs, RAs, and other academics lack any union protections, and is a very large and diverse workplace, students felt that having a professional and well-resourced union partner would be vital to maximize the chances for success.
  3. CUPE has an existing presence at UW, as the only union currently on campus (not including federated/affiliated colleges). CUPE Local 793 represents staff in a range of positions in Food Services and Plant Operations, from kitchen porters, cooks, and bakers to custodians, grounds staff, trades and maintenance staff, and stationary engineers. Thus, CUPE already has some experience dealing with UW as an institution and employer.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, the principles of local autonomy and democracy are enshrined in CUPE’s constitution. This means that each local is led by democratically-elected members and we are always fully in control of our own union, including its structure and priorities. Nationally, CUPE is a non-profit federation, made up of, and governed by, its members. The constitution determines the union’s objectives and operations, and forms the basis for the functioning of the 2,300+ CUPE local unions across Canada. It can only be changed by the delegates at the Biennial Convention and accordingly belongs to the members of CUPE.

The organizers were unanimous in agreeing that CUPE was the top choice to support this campaign to unionize student/sessional workers at uWaterloo.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees

CUPE is Canada’s largest union, with over 715,000 members across the country. CUPE represents workers across a broad range of sectors including health care, emergency services, primary, secondary and post-secondary education, early learning and child care, municipalities, social services, libraries, utilities, transportation and airlines.

  • More than 60 per cent of our members are women
  • More than 70 per cent of CUPE’s 3,946 collective agreements are with locals of 100 members or less
  • CUPE has more than 2,363 locals and chartered organizations across the country, ranging in size from 20 to 20,000 members
  • CUPE membership’s collective payroll is over $21.8 billion

CUPE is a founding union of the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella organization for the Canadian labour movement. With dozens of affiliated Canadian and International unions, as well as provincial federations of labour and regional labour councils, the CLC represents the interests of more than three million workers in every imaginable occupation from coast to coast to coast.

Globally, CUPE is a proud and active affiliate of Public Service International. As the global federation of public sector unions, PSI represents 650 affiliated trade unions in 148 countries and territories worldwide, uniting more than 20 million public sector workers.

You can find more information about us here.

Fairness. Equality. Dignity.

There is still much to be done before we have a truly just society. Empowering young workers, women's rights, racial equality, dignity for the disabled, as well as justice for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

We have made Canada a better place for millions of workers and their families. We will keep fighting for a Canada where all workers have a decent wage, retirement security, dignity, and a safe workplace.

As we move forward, we are undertaking an unprecedented initiative to speak with every rank and file member in order to re-create our movement.

CUPE is made up of 715,000 public service workers. We will back each other up. We will speak with one voice.


Protection against arbitrary and unreasonable management actions such as terminations. Discharge and discipline for just cause only. A grievance procedure and access to arbitration to enforce your rights.

As members of a union, you will bargain a legally binding collective agreement that contains terms and conditions of employment. Your collective agreement ensures predictability, equal treatment for all, and a clear process for accountability along with dispute resolution if the agreement is violated.

In CUPE, the members are in charge. Local unions in CUPE have democratic control over their activities. Members of the local union decide, at regular membership meetings, on issues that are important to the local and the membership. The local union itself is run by elected members of the local union. Each CUPE local decides its priorities for bargaining, when to settle a new contract, and how to manage funds.

CUPE's strength comes from individual members working toward common goals, like improving wages and benefits, improving health and safety conditions, and improving your overall workplace environment.

How experienced is CUPE in the post-secondary education sector? How about in Ontario?

CUPE represents 74,600 members in 233 bargaining units in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector across Canada. Our members work in universities, colleges and student-led organizations. Around 390,000 people total work in universities, colleges, vocational and trade institutions in Canada. Of those, about 43,000 are full-time university faculty members outside CUPE’s jurisdiction.

CUPE PSE members work in a wide variety of positions. We represent academic workers and support staff alike. Academic workers include instructors, researchers, teaching assistants and lab techs; support staff work in grounds and building maintenance, libraries, food services, caretaking, information technology, clerical support and administration.

CUPE is a major union in universities, representing approximately 25 per cent of all non-faculty employees. We have far fewer members in colleges, but a significant number of college members in BC and Quebec.

In Ontario specifically, CUPE represents about 20,000 TAs/RAs/GAs at 12 universities, such as Toronto, Ottawa, York, McMaster, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Guelph. We have a further 8,000 academic worker members, such as sessional instructors, contract lecturers, post-doctoral fellows, technicians, and research librarians, across 11 institutions. In Ontario CUPE has a total of 40,000 PSE members (academic and support staff) across 80 collective agreements.

You can find out more about the PSE sector in our sector profile.

Does CUPE have connections to other (student) organizations?

CUPE is a founding union of the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella organization for the Canadian labour movement. With dozens of affiliated Canadian and International unions, as well as provincial federations of labour and regional labour councils, the CLC represents the interests of more than three million workers in every imaginable occupation from coast to coast to coast.

Globally, CUPE is a proud and active affiliate of Public Service International. As the global federation of public sector unions, PSI represents 650 affiliated trade unions in 148 countries and territories worldwide, uniting more than 20 million public sector workers.

In addition, CUPE staff are often active in provincial and Canada-wide student movements and many have completed graduate degrees at universities like UW. CUPE and our coalition partners have long advocated for affordable and accessible public post-secondary education for students in well-funded colleges and universities. Our main long-time partners in this struggle are students represented by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and faculty union members represented by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Many CUPE locals regularly work with student unions, public interest research groups, women’s centres, LGBTTQI+ groups, and other campus-based organizations. Many campuses have regular inter-union meetings to discuss issues of shared concern – such as pensions, benefits, contracting out and other bargaining issues. Other research institutes and groups that support our issues include the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Broadbent Institute, federal and provincial New Democratic parties, the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial federations of labour.

I'm aware that some unions pay organizers. Are any members of the student organizing campaign team being paid by CUPE?

No, CUPE does not pay students or employees to organize your workplace; we feel this is something that should be done for altruistic reasons. Engaged workers are how unions are formed, and without them, a unionization drive is much less likely to succeed. Thus, no members of the Committee to Organize UWaterloo are being paid by CUPE.

The only exception is if a student (or anyone else) provides a specialized service to the campaign, for example translation or graphic design. However, the default is for such work to be done by in-house CUPE staff, or by qualified contractors (unionized wherever possible) CUPE retains for various projects.

All support of the campaign by CUPE staff (or sub-contractors) is at no charge to student organizers at UW, rather it is paid from CUPE’s budget for organizing campaigns. In the rare case that such work is completed by a non-CUPE person, they will be offered a fair wage by CUPE in accordance with best labour practices.

Can students become involved with CUPE or gain professional experience? Are there any paid opportunities?

Yes! Getting involved in the union local (once it is formed) is not only a great way to help your fellow students, but it can also provide excellent professional experience in areas like project management, teamwork, coaching and advising colleagues, labour regulations, conflict management, organizing / activism, marketing and communication, and more. CUPE provides free training to student members who serve on/for the union local, such as by being elected to the executive, acting as a grievance officer or “shop steward”, or serving on a committee - whether for bargaining, international students, health & safety, or any other committees the local decides to form. There are also many opportunities to get involved at the regional and national level. In addition to training, students can be paid if they provide professional services to the union, like graphic design or translation, and can also take part in workshops and conventions held by CUPE regional or national branches, in which case travel costs are covered.

What are union “dues”? What is their purpose?

In short, 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. They pay for the infrastructure to bargain and enforce the collective agreement, enforce other labour rights, facilitate democracy, and support other rights (health and safety, equity, leave, etc.) under the constitution/labour law. The union also provides professional support through lawyers, research, communications, education programs for members (for bargaining and running a local and enforcing/understanding your rights), and equity officers to support equity rights under law.

CUPE has staff that support workers so that they can stand as equals when it comes to labour relations with large employers. CUPE also provides direct support to individuals dealing with issues in the workplace. The purpose of CUPE is to provide that support so that every individual in the workplace doesn't have to be an expert. In fact, unions exist because there is no other option workers have to engage with their employers. There is not government support for workers to enforce their rights. Without a union, you are left to do this as an individual. But, employers have resources centralized to support their interests professionally (through lawyers, communications, HR departments) and have experience dealing with these issues from their perspective over a long time. Workers (especially TAs/RAs/Sessionals) are short-term by nature and focused on their work. This relationship is very one-sided. Unions are the key way we have to restore some balance to this situation.

Who pays union dues? And who are they paid to?

Dues are deducted from paycheques during terms/periods when a member in the bargaining unit is working; if you are not working then you will not pay them. It is standard that the bargaining committee seeks in the first collective agreement to negotiate a pay raise at least equivalent to the amount of dues. Stated another way, dues are factored in to any increase sought at the bargaining table. This means that in effect, workers don't actually pay dues from their current wages, rather employers do, as a top-up. Any further increase in pay or benefits is a real increase kept by employees, while all the legal and support protections unionization brings are then essentially free of charge!

Once collected, dues still belongs to workers, even when they are pooled together with others’ money, because both the local and national portion (see FAQ below) are democratically worker-controlled. The dues are also not really “paid” to CUPE at all, because it is not a corporation; it operates under labour law, not corporate law (i.e. it is not incorporated), and is entirely non-profit. CUPE is simply the collection of members it represents, not something separate or distinct from them. The strength of CUPE come from the size of its membership and efficiencies that come with scale. The same economies of scale work for insurance companies (though, CUPE is no way an insurance company in operation!). It is similar to the GSA in that respect: you pay dues to the GSA for it to function and represent you (and all the infrastructure necessary to do those things). The difference, of course, is that a union has special rights under the law to bargain and enforce a collective agreement that a GSA does not.

This movement – as are all union drives – is a movement of the workers in your workplace. Their motivations are to use collective resources more strategically to improve your working conditions and engage with the university as an employer on a more equitable playing field.

How much are union dues? How are they collected?

CUPE is an non-profit labour union and all spending is transparent. Topline financial statements are posted on our website in the section on Reporting and Accountability.

CUPE’s union dues are broken into two parts:

  1. 0.85% of base salary is the dues rate going to CUPE National. These dues are used to pay for staff and services of the union, including your National Service Representative, research, communications, and legal, education, human rights, and health and safety support. These dues also support national campaigns, publications, meetings, and conventions which allow for the democratic functions of CUPE to function.
  2. Local dues rates are set democratically by the membership of the local. CUPE locals have democratic autonomy over the spending of our dues, which gives CUPE locals more autonomy than most unions. All locals must have trustees and audited financial statements that oversee local spending and report that spending to the members.

Together, both CUPE National and the local’s dues rate can vary, but the average total rate for CUPE locals is about 1.5% to 1.6% of base salary per member.

What services does CUPE offer to members and locals?

Many! Here is a selection of some main services and activities CUPE offers:

  • Reporting and accountability: Four times a year, CUPE national officers issue reports outlining the union’s work in their areas of responsibility. This includes the National Presidents’ Report, National Secretary-Treasurers’ Report, National Executive Board (NEB) Highlights, and Audited Financial Statements.
  • Member resources: CUPE offers a range of resources related to job sectors, union activities and activism, including useful information for bargaining committees, locals, financial officers, stewards, and communicators, as well as the Unite for Fairness project. These resources include materials that can be downloaded and ordered online to be delivered to locals, including newsletters and publications, fact sheets, guides and handbooks, and posters and brochures. We also offer materials and support related to website hosting and newsletters at no charge to CUPE locals.
  • Sector profiles: By sharing information related to job sectors and occupations, members will be able to learn from one another, identify best practices and winning strategies, as well as strengthen the sector by way of increased knowledge and ideas amongst our local activists. As economic and political challenges mount, CUPE locals in all sectors are faced with increasingly difficult bargaining. For us to keep achieving real gains for our members, we must be ready to bargain smart.
  • Union education: CUPE offers a wide variety of workshops and different ways for members to access union education. We offer weeklong, weekend, weeknight or noon-hour sessions.
  • Issues and research: CUPE undertakes research into broad societal issues that cross employment sectors. Summaries of work in these areas is collected on the website for ease of reference. Some examples of areas of research include: Indigenous peoples, the environment, health & safety, LGBTQ2+ people, pay equity, women's rights, child care, disability rights, the economy, employment insurance, health care, international solidarity, literacy, labour organizing, pensions, racial equality, trade, and water.