Unionization and bargaining process

What is a union “card” exactly? Why are you collecting them?

The whole point of an organizing campaign is to sign cards, as these are how a workplace actually becomes unionized. Traditionally these were actually small paper cards you fill out and sign. Fortunately, a recent court decision pushed the Labour Board to allow a digital version of card-signing, which allows us to still organize during the current pandemic situation.

Signing a card is a legal statement that you want to join the union (assuming the union drive succeeds). Cards are not just a request for a vote or a show of support, they are a membership card in the union. Signing a card is confidential and is a personal choice for each person. The act of signing a membership card in a union is an act of consciousness, courage, and solidarity, and student organizers will never pressure you to sign a card if you do not want to. Whether or not you sign a card, you will still have a vote if the drive is approved by the Labour Board.

There is no cost to sign a card. Dues (see FAQ) are charged only during terms/periods when you are working, and typically only start being collected once the first collective agreement has been bargained, voted on, approved, and come into force.

How does unionization officially happen?

A minimum of 40% of the employees must sign union membership cards. An application is then submitted to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (“the labour board”). Within 5 days, the labour board holds a secret ballot vote at the workplace or online. In order for the union to be successful, 50% plus one of the employees who cast a ballot must vote in favour of the union.

For more detail on how this process works, check out our handy 2-minute guide and infographic!

What is the approximate timeline for unionization?

As a grassroots campaign that is occurring (for now) 100% digitally, it will take some time to collect cards, but organizers are working hard to reach out to potential members, hear your workplace concerns, and provide information about unionization. Organizers hope to submit the application to the Labour Board in the fall term, and cards are valid for one year. If the application is successful, there will be a vote one week later in which all potential members can vote; if 50%+1 vote in favour, then the process for bargaining can begin (see FAQ below). Because the first collective agreement forms the basis for all future agreements, it is the most important, and therefore it takes time (approximately one year) to complete.

Is it common for TAs/RAs etc. to be in a union in Canada?

Yes! The University of Waterloo is one of the last universities in Canada without a union for graduate student workers. Unionization of TAs, RAs, and GAs (Graduate Assistants) is very common across the country.

CUPE represents 70,400 members in 233 bargaining units in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector across Canada. Members work in universities, colleges and student-led organizations in a wide variety of positions, including both academic workers and support staff alike. CUPE is a major union in universities, representing approximately 25 per cent of all non-faculty employees (full-time university faculty members are outside CUPE’s jurisdiction), as well as having a significant number of college members in BC and Quebec ( source).

Which other universities in Ontario are unionized?

Almost all universities in Ontario have unionized graduate workers, including (in approximate order of graduate enrollment):

  1. University of Toronto
  2. Western University
  3. University of Ottawa
  4. York University
  5. Queen's University
  6. McMaster University
  7. Carleton University
  8. University of Windsor
  9. University of Guelph
  10. Toronto Metropolitan University
  11. Brock University
  12. Wilfrid Laurier University
  13. Lakehead University
  14. Laurentian University
  15. Ontario Tech University (aka UOIT), and
  16. Trent University

In addition, post-doctoral fellows and sessional instructors are unionized at many of the above schools.

CUPE locals represent about 20,000 TAs/RAs/GAs at 12 universities in Ontario, including UofT, Ottawa, York, McMaster, Toronto Metropolitan, and Guelph, along with ~8,000 sessional instructors, contract lecturers, and/or post-doctoral fellows at 11 institutions. CUPE has a total of 40,000 members in the post-secondary education sector (academic and support staff) in Ontario across 80 collective agreements. You can find out more about CUPE at this OUW FAQ page or on the CUPE website.

Are there other unions present on-campus? Are UW faculty (professors) unionized?

Yes! There are currently four unions representing workers at UW.

The newest of these are the Sessional Instructors who formed their union on January 4, 2023. The sessionals’ union, CUPE Local 5524, has elected their executive and bargaining committee and are in the process of negotiating their first collective agreement.

CUPE Local 793 represents staff in Food Services and Plant Operations, and their membership covers a wide range of positions from kitchen porters, cooks, and bakers to custodians, grounds staff, and trades and maintenance staff, to stationary engineers.

The St. Jerome's University's Academic Staff Association (SJU-ASA) has represented all permanent, contract, full-time, and part-time academic staff at SJU since 2013. The Renison Association of Academic Staff (RAAS) received certification as a trade union on March 23, 2020, and represents permanent and continuing academic staff and librarians at Renison (but not sessional instructors or library assistants).

The Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW) represents all regular faculty members who hold definite term, probationary, tenured, or continuing appointments, excluding faculty at the federated colleges (SJU, Renison, Grebel, and St. Paul's). This includes part-time, definite-term faculty and lecturers who have contracts of one year or longer. FAUW is not a trade union under the Labour Relations Act; instead it advocates for and supports its members under the terms of a Memorandum of Agreement with the university administration, who voluntarily recognized FAUW as the sole official bargaining agent for faculty with regard to salaries and terms and conditions of employment. Other faculty members and professional librarians may join FAUW as special members, but are not officially represented for bargaining purposes.

FAUW is a valuable resource for academic staff and may work in solidarity with unions on campus. See here for more on eligibility for sessionals and other categories of workers to join this union drive.

Does the existence of other unions at UW impact a TA/RA+ union?

Because few graduate students are employed at SJU or Renison University College (see directly above) the vast majority of RAs and TAs at UW are not protected by a union.

The presence (or lack thereof) of another union on campus has no negative effect on our ability to form a new TA/RA+ union. In general, having more workers on-campus protected by unions. It strengthens everyone's position by providing opportunities for solidarity and helping normalize union representation at large employers like UW where very few workers are unionized.

It is very common for universities and large companies in Ontario and Canada to have multiple unions in one organization, representing different groups of workers, and often working together to ensure the best working conditions for all. CUPE 793's presence at UW representing blue-collar and trades workers and CUPE 5524 representing sessionals is positive since it means that CUPE has experience dealing with UW as an employer, which they could use to help students in our RA/TA+ union in the future.

How does the negotiation/bargaining process work?

A democratically elected executive and bargaining committee will be given the authority to negotiate on behalf of its members. CUPE will provide the new local with a Staff Representative who will work with the bargaining committee to negotiate a collective agreement.

Local members will be surveyed throughout the process to identify bargaining demands (i.e. pressing workplace issues that students want addressed). Notice to bargain will go to the university shortly after certification.

CUPE members will be kept informed and have the opportunity for input throughout the process. Once a tentative agreement is established, the local will vote on its ratification. Once ratified, the agreement becomes a legal document under which the employer and the union operate.

Who will serve on the bargaining committee?

Short answer: you! The bargaining committee will be made up of members/workers who are democratically elected by the membership in the union local. These representatives will then work with staff from CUPE to benefit from their staff’s experience and knowledge in negotiating a collective agreement. The agreement is then put to the membership in a vote to approve or reject.

How can I have a say in the negotiations and ensure my voice is heard?

Many ways! All the way through the process members and potential members can give your input or take part. Already now at the organizing stage, student organizers are having one-on-one conversations with students and workers about the issues you are facing in your daily lives and work, and collecting these for later. If unionization succeeds (the vote passes), then there will be an election for executive, bargaining, and other committee members.

You can put your name forward for one of these roles (and get paid training to help you do this work)! Then the bargaining committee will undertake a survey/consultation process to decide what the key issues members want the committee to focus on in the negotiations; they will also take into account feedback during the negotiation process as issues arise. Finally, all members will be able to vote for or against the proposed collective agreement, before it can be approved and come into force.

How long (approximately) does it take to negotiate a collective agreement?

The first collective agreement is the most important because it forms the basis for all future agreements. Therefore, it takes time to ensure the language is comprehensive and captures all the workplace issues members have and wish to address. This typically takes about one year, though it can take more or less time depending on the local context.