Sep. 2020 update: KitchenerToday.com, fall semester preview, reflections on organizing

The latest from OrganizeUW - Sep. 8, 2020

Two dogs on a zoom video call, with a yellow and red background, respectively. One looks happy and the other more thoughtful, and perhaps sassy. Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Recently our campaign was featured on KitchenerToday.com. Sara Marsh, a PhD student in Germanic & Slavic Studies, talked to reporter Ariel Deutschmann about why she joined the committee early on as a core organizer, what it's been like organizing during a pandemic, what students have already achieved, and why she and the other organizers believe it's still worth campaigning even if we might be finished our studies at UW by the time a collective agreement (CA) is in place.

Identifying problems, finding solutions

Sara says she joined the committee with little hesitation because of frustrations she and others have long felt with working conditions at UW, which she wants to help fix. She had had positive experiences being in a union before, first while working in public administration before her MA, and then afterwards as a sessional instructor at UManitoba ( CUPE local 3909). She also taught at the University of Alberta (which is not unionized) and noticed the clear differences in protections between organized and unorganized workplaces.

“I long thought we needed a union at Waterloo, but I didn't know how to go about it."

She has also worked in various jobs where the permanent employees were part of a union, but because she was a “temp” or on a contract, she was excluded. This is a common experience for young people today, as more and more workplaces become precarious. At least 40% of unemployed workers regularly don't qualify for Employment Insurance (sources: here, here, here), and increasingly even professionals may not benefit from the hard-won gains of many decades of labour movements, like weekends off, paid holidays, real vacation time you can actually take (without needing to answer emails), overtime, sick pay, predictable income and work schedules, pensions, and a guaranteed minimum wage (unpaid internships or flat-rate contracts, anyone?).

Building solidarity

Like many recent MA grads, Sara's first academic job was as a sessional instructor (also known as an adjunct lecturer) on a short-term contract. She sees clear common ground between workplace issues faced by both of these groups, as precarious conditions in academia are normalized during graduate studies and then carried over to sessional instructors. As tenured professorships have become ever scarcer despite rising enrollments, it is now estimated that over 50% of undergraduate teaching is done by workers in precarious categories. She believes solidarity among academic workers of all stripes is key to strengthening post-secondary education in Canada and pushing back against the neoliberalization of the academy.

“I've had a really positive experience with unions…one of the reasons I got involved with this union is that I saw these issues over time and I was struggling at finding a way to make some of these things better."

Sara also discusses how working to help her colleagues gave her an immediate sense of purpose and connection during the early days of the pandemic, when everything was so stressful and uncertain. This is something she didn't expect, but which of course came as a welcome surprise. It brought her closer to her fellow students and helped reduce the isolation of lockdown, as she became part of a grassroots group of students working toward an admirable, achievable, shared goal: making UW a better place to work work (and therefore, to learn) in the future, through concrete actions in the present.

“It gave me something to do that wasn't my university work, to feel like, ‘Okay, I can actually make a difference for university students now.'"

She knows too, that forming a union takes time and effort, and that she may be finished her degree at UW by the time a CA gets signed and put into place. But she feels it will still be worth it.

“We want to be recognized as workers and want to be treated with respect. Once you have a collective agreement, it becomes more concrete… it's a way of equalizing that power."

Not only will unionization lock in and solidify current working conditions (more on that below), it will also help ensure student and contract-based workers are seen and respected for our key contributions, and allow us to finally experience the protections in place at almost every other university in Ontario (and Canada).

“I never felt any doubt from the start that this was the right thing for Waterloo, I really don't see any negatives to it. […] If U of T and Queens, and every other university has it, it really […] makes you see that it's not […] out of the ordinary for grad students to be protected while working."

Immediate impacts

OrganizeUW has already seen a positive impact from our efforts and we've been working to hold the university to account. Student organizers have been partnering with Health & Safety reps from the existing CUPE local 793 at UW, which represents blue-collar workers, to push back on lack of proper communication to all student workers about training and procedures for a safe return to work. CUPE and student organizers have advocated, along with other unions and student groups across Canada, to push back against unfair and unnecessary blanket restrictions on students working remotely as TAs or RAs from outside of Ontario or Canada (which have been largely now walked back, in full or in part, at many schools, including UW).

“We've already had some immediate effects,” said Marsh, “Last week Waterloo announced some commitments to students as a result of this campaign… We're trying to use what little power we have now to advocate for things during the pandemic."

Standing up for our rights

Indeed, UW seems to have taken notice of our campaign, announcing “ commitments” to grad students. While on the one hand this is positive, because it shows that UW is recognizing our collective power to demand better, on the other, this announcement is a re-hash of statements made in the Spring semester when UW first heard of our drive. It doesn't include anything beyond generic promises of cooperation and consultation, paired with reassurances that UW will work harder to enforce “ existing business practices.”

They [the university] can cut your pay, they can cut your hours, they can cut the number of TA shifts… They […] are only being held to the [lower] standards of employment law, not labour law."

The problem? Right now those standards are often not being met. We continue to get our paycheques late, struggle to switch advisors or labs, work far beyond our allotted TA hours, struggle to access disability accommodations for our work as TAs, see funding clawed back when we win an external scholarship, and more. Policies are nothing without fair and accessible oversight, through which workers are protected. Right now, a breach of workplace rights requires a student to come forward individually to the university administration, which places them in the precarious position of “opposing” or challenge the very leaders in their field, who wield immense power over students’ studies and future career.

Having a union will mean students will have worker reps elected from within our ranks, who will be trained on the provisions of the CA, and ready to provide expert support in standing up for ourselves. We will have the added support that comes from the backing of CUPE, a $300M organization with decades of experience and expertise in the post-secondary sector, including fully-staffed human rights, training, and legal departments.

Protecting hard-won gains

Furthermore, without the legal enforceability of a CA, any improvements (even if substantive) promised by UW can be withdrawn at any time, as they are non-binding. However, once OrganizeUW files our application to unionize with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, all current terms and conditions of employment are legally “frozen” until a CA is bargained and comes into force.

“Even if you didn't [win high-profile increases in the CA], and you've only achieved keeping things as they are now, to me it's already a win because it locks it into place and says, ‘You can't go backwards.'” […] “This [union] gives us a way to have a voice and to make sure that things don't get worse, so to say."

This is why unionizing will make academic workers better off right away, as it protects us from unfair changes or cuts that may be coming due to (post-)pandemic government or institutional belt-tightening, while also bringing immediate legal protections.

Growing momentum

So far OrganizeUW has been delighted at the level of interest and response from potential members to our campaign. Our core organizers and group of card-signing volunteers have had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with people about what a union is, how it could help them, and what it will mean for UW. We've also had our campaign endorsed by the UW-GSA, who stand in solidarity with our efforts to improve the graduate student experience.

“We've mostly received a positive response… most students are interested in it.” said Marsh, “Our really big goal is to give people all that information so that they can choose for themselves and make that informed decision."

If you'd like more info, check out our 2-Minute Quick Guide on the unionization process, get into some nitty-gritty details in our extensive (but well-organized!) FAQ, contact us by email, or if you're ready to sign a card, click here to sign up! And if you're passionate and want to get involved, there are many ways, big and small, that you can help! The key thing you can already do is by talking to your friends and classmates about the union.

Upcoming events

Going into the Fall Semester, OrganizeUW is gearing up for more outreach to students and sessional workers across UW. We will host our first Webinar on Thursday, Sep. 17th at 2pm, which will outline key information about the drive, present some updates on health and safety, discuss international student issues, and include a short presentation from a nearby CUPE local president, who will discuss what it is like to have a TA/RA+ union at a nearby university.

We also just launched our contest to Name The Goose (win swag!) and faculty-specific town halls will be coming soon. You might also see some organizers around the Graduate House - please feel free to approach and ask any questions you have. We'd love to chat with you!

*Thank you to KitchenerToday.com for this coverage - we hope you'll check out the full article here! And thank you to Sara for sharing her experience!*

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Note: Committee to Organize uWaterloo is wholly separate from the UW-GSA, and all views and information presented are our own. Some organizers may serve on GSA, but all involvement in this campaign is in their capacity as individual students, a fact made clear in all communications. Confidentiality with regard to internal GSA processes is strictly maintained at all times. Any interested supporter may join the campaign - all are welcome!

Committee to Organize uWaterloo
Committee to Organize uWaterloo
supported by CUPE

The Committee to Organize uWaterloo is a grassroots campaign to unionize the academic workers at the University of Waterloo. The campaign is supported by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada's largest union.

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