Impacts of unionization

How would things change after unionization? Do you have some concrete examples?

Many things will change with a union including:

  • A collective agreement (employment contract that applies to everyone) that is known to all parties that outlines your rights and responsibilities as an employee that the university (and you) are legally obliged to follow.
  • A collective agreement is agreed to by both the union and the employer. That mutual agreement is a massive change from now where the university admin (or your supervisor) can arbitrarily change your terms of employment or working conditions.
  • The union is a democratic body of workers who collectively (through a structure) enforce the collective agreement. So, not only is the contract legally binding to everyone, but if the employer tries to get around it there is a mechanism to stop them and make it expensive on the employer to break it. This creates an incentive for the employer to enforce the terms that they have agreed to and means fewer violations on their side. This also drastically reduces any favouritism that can drive inequality in access to good working conditions or hours of work.
  • A voice over your terms of employment. You will get a voice and a vote over your own working conditions. You certainly do not have this now.
  • Changes to employment could include wages, benefits, access to employment, anti-harassment language, intellectual property rights, ergonomics, health and safety, leaves (like pregnancy, parental and/or religious/ethnic leave), funding for committees to examine issues in the workplace, just to list a few. There is no limit to what can be negotiated into a collective agreement (if you can convince the employer to agree to it) and it is up to the members of the local union to decide what we try to negotiate in our collective agreement.

How would the role of the graduate student change?

There will be no change in the role of the graduate student. The union represents you as a worker, not as a student. You may be both and your roles in either may affect the other, but that is the case now and will be the case after unionization. What the union does is provide some clarity about the difference in the roles that may not be clear to many people right now.

A union contract will simply allow you to know when you are working for the university (being a TA/RA/Sessional) and when you are working for yourself (doing your own research).

What are the benefits? And importantly, what are the drawbacks?

The benefits of unionization are rather vast. The most important benefit of unionization is a legal voice and vote over your own working conditions. Everything else flows from that.

The only drawback of unionization is that it sets a floor for working conditions that cannot be broken. This means that some supervisors and the administration will not be able to exploit graduate students. This means that the administration will have to put more resources toward raising standards of those who are falling through the cracks.

For some people who enjoy some perks that come from inequality in access to resources it means that they may lose these perks as the university reallocates resources to help those who are being exploited. For these folks, we say that they will be better off in the end if we can bring everyone up to the standards enjoyed by privileged few and make it permanent.

How could unionization impact the funding I receive from uWaterloo? Would it help to standardize or equalize access to funding across departments/faculties?

It will not affect access to graduate student grant funding. However, it will affect and standardize (but, more importantly clarify) access to employment wages. This can have a huge impact!

For example, other unions in Ontario have negotiated:

  • Mandated, paid check-in meetings to ensure you are not overworked/discuss workload management (U of T)
  • Paid training, including basic training, health and safety training, and training on special topics like helping students in mental health crises,inclusivity and accessibility in teaching, etc. (various universities)
    • Note: at uWaterloo, TA training currently not mandated to be paid (i.e. included in your TA/RA hours)
  • That preference be given to graduate student TAs (U of T)
  • Access to assistance funds (various universities)
  • That only a certain portion of funds from work can count toward your minimum funding ($8,200 at U of T)
  • Additional pay for larger classes, or for a first-time sessional instructor to provide for preparation and course design (Sessionals at Guelph, had no impact on number of TAs assigned)

Could unionization affect my ability to take on additional work at the university? Can it help eliminate UW's ability to control grads seeking such work?

Yes. For the classifications that are covered by the collective agreement, you can negotiate access to employment opportunities within the university and will have a say over access to those employment positions.

However, we cannot negotiate access to classification not covered by the collective agreement.

What about work outside the university/off-campus?

Unionization will not impact your ability to undertake employment off-campus. Unionization is something that applies to your specific role at the university. You will only be unionized in your capacity as a TA/RA/sessional.

Is there an opportunity to expand the benefits offered for graduate students?

Yes, we can collectively negotiate benefit expansion and/or increases, top-ups, or specific payments for benefits on top of what we currently get. See FAQ below for more details specifically on health benefits.

While CUPE can’t offer you health benefits or as many services in terms when you aren’t working an employee, it is also common that when CUPE negotiates standards for students who are employees, they become standard for all students for the university’s ease of administration.

Many collective agreements in the sector include that the university contribute a certain amount of money to various support funds and/or offices. For example a fund for student mental health support, trans support, or sexual assault support, as well as infrastructure and funding for an anti-harassment office. These support funds can be mandated to be made available to all students regardless of employment status.

All benefits and such support funds are negotiated during the bargaining process, and priorities areas are decided on democratically by the bargaining committee, based on surveys of what students at UW want to be included in our collective agreement.

Would unionization impact healthcare benefits I receive through StudentCare, UHIP, OHIP(+), or another health plan?

There are two main kinds of health insurance in Canada:

  1. Being in a union will have no impact on primary government health insurance plans, which are administered by each province or territory and cover doctor services, hospital visits, and laboratory and diagnostic tests. Also known generally as “medicare”, these plans differ by province, and domestic students are normally either a member of the plan from their home province or from Ontario, depending on their situation. These plans include OHIP in Ontario, MSP in British Columbia, RAMQ in Quebec, AHCIP in Alberta, MSI in Nova Scotia, and so on. International students in Ontario, on the other hand, get this type of coverage through the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP). While the coverage is not exactly the same, both of these plans cover similar primary care services, as mentioned above.
  2. The second type of coverage is called supplementary health insurance, and it covers expenses not covered by primary government plans. All UW students, both international and domestic, have supplementary insurance through the GSA health plan, administered by StudentCare and SunLife. This plan would not change under unionization, and will continue to cover all students, regardless of whether you are working or not (the premiums are paid as part of student fees each term). While the extent of coverage depends on the plan, there is typically at least partial coverage for “out-of-pocket” expenses like prescription drugs, dental and vision care, ambulance transport, medical devices, and auxiliary health providers (massage, psychology, physiotherapy, etc.). Student plans also commonly include things like travel medical coverage, legal support, or tuition and tutoring coverage in case of severe injury. People can get this kind of coverage from their or their spouse or parent’s employer, university, or a plan purchased on the private market.

Many union member locals, including some in CUPE, have chosen to negotiate an additional supplementary health insurance plan via their collective agreement, which students would have access to when they are working. As with other such plans, this coverage can be “added on” through a process called “coordination of benefits”, so that when combined, many expenses are covered 100% (e.g. 80% is covered by one plan, and the remaining 20% of an expense by the other plan). Because students typically do not work every term, this coverage does not replace the GSA plan; rather it adds on to it. Premiums would be negotiated as part of the agreement, and only be paid when you are a member of the union, the same as for dues.

Finally, even when you are not working, unions can collectively bargain for resources that positively affect all students, such as mandating that the university contribute a certain amount of money to a student mental health fund, among other policies.

The formation of a union at UW will not have a direct impact on other services at UW, as these services are administered by units of UW administration (e.g. the library, writing centre, health and fitness centres) or the GSA (UPass, legal and tax aid, Grad House, etc.). The union is a separate entity from the university and GSA, made up of student workers who have joined together in a democratic structure to have a collective say over working conditions.

While not all students will be members of the union at all times (i.e. when not working as a TA/RA/Sessional), having a union setting clear terms for employment can allow students to better understand our relationship with the university and improve the campus climate for all. Union members can not only vote to direct the union to advocate on behalf of its members; but also to join in campaigns with similar organizations across the campus, province and country; and advocate for improvements to campus services used by all students (like the library, health centre, career services, etc.)

CUPE is active in national, provincial and local campaigns to advocate for high-quality, well funded, accessible, public post-secondary education in Canada. They work closely with their many coalition partners through cross-campus alliances to support these campaigns locally so all members of the university community can strengthen our voice to the administration.

Could unionization impact how TA/RAships or other opportunities are awarded to students?

The main impact of how jobs and other paid opportunities are awarded to graduate students will be on clarifying how these jobs are awarded, and to whom. This means departments will need to be transparent and equitable, i.e. have a fair and open process, in how they award positions, including explaining the criteria used to decide who is the most qualified candidate.

It will also ensure that you are protected if you think you have been subject to unfair discrimination in the hiring process. In this case, you will be able to talk to the grievance officer (a student member trained in employment rights and the collective agreement), to help you file a grievance and ensure your human and employee rights are respected.

What does “seniority” mean and how does it work in an academic setting?

“Seniority” is a concept whereby some employees who have worked for an employer longer may be given additional protections or privileges in the workplace, such as choice of shifts, better hours, less chance of being laid off, etc. in return for their longer service.

Seniority language is uncommon in TA/RA+ unions, since by the nature of their programs, students are short-term, non-permanent workers. However, it can still occur in some academic settings, like for sessional instructors/contract lecturers. So for example, if a contract sessional instructor has taught a course successfully a certain amount of times, then they may get a higher rate of pay or gain the “right of first refusal” when this course is taught in future semesters. This protects them from not having their contract renewed for an arbitrary reason, despite having taught a course many times in the past. It does not mean that someone unqualified is guaranteed work or is unaccountable for their performance. Rather it is standard that the instructor would need to pass a periodic performance evaluation (e.g. every semester) to maintain their right of refusal. It also does not guarantee someone a job if the course is not offered or cancelled due to low enrollment or another legitimate administrative reason.

Whether or not seniority-language is included in a collective agreement is up to the local union members, whose wishes are then brought to the bargaining table by the bargaining committee. It is not required and would only be included at the desire of workers themselves.