Faculty Discussion Series on Unionization #1: Faculty of Environment


Organize uWaterloo and CUPE are pleased to present the first webinar in our new Faculty Discussion Series on Unionization. First the guests will give brief remarks identifying workplace issues in the Faculty and outlining the role of unions to address them. Then the floor will be open for discussion, including questions and concerns from audience members. All are welcome!

Oct 15, 2020 3:00 PM — 4:00 PM
Faculty of Environment - Organize uWaterloo Webinar
Online webinar


  • Graham Cox, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)
  • Sandra Biskupovic, Environment Graduate Student Association (EGSA)
  • Moderated by Sophia Sanniti, OrganizeUW

Bring your questions or submit in advance!

In order to facilitate open sharing and discussion, this webinar will not be recorded. Minutes will be taken and shared after the session, within the faculty of Environment, among attendees and on this page. Attendee names will remain anonymous.

Minutes: Faculty of Environment Town Hall - Oct 15, 2020


  • Sophia Sanniti: Student organizer, moderator
  • Graham Cox: Researcher, CUPE
  • Sandra Biskupovic: President, EGSA

Introduction to CUPE: Graham Cox

  • CUPE is the largest union in Canada
    • 700,000 members across the country
    • 225 bargaining units in the university sector
  • Focuses on representing employees in broader public sector
  • They are the largest union in the university sector in Canada
  • Diverse union
    • Members include technical workers, blue collar workers, white collar workers
    • Majority women union (about 60%)
    • Large diversity within membership
  • In Ontario, CUPE organizes university unions under the Ontario University Workers Coordination Committee (OUWCC)
    • Represent about 21000 TA/Ras
    • 1200 Postdocs
    • 18 institutions
    • 79 collective agreements
  • Believe in local autonomy
    • Waterloo union will have student executives
    • Staff of national CUPE organization do not interfere with the local operations
    • We will have freedom to decide when to negotiate, what to prioritize
    • CUPE Is here to provide resources and support
      • Help with bargaining/enforcement of the collective agreement
      • Provide us a national representative to CUPE
      • Will support in getting research, legal, communications, education, health and safety, and human rights support
  • CUPE is currently part of multiple political campaigns
    • Reducing precarious employment on campus
    • Stop universities contracting-out
    • Increase cleaning standards
    • Expand benefits and pension coverage
    • Increase public funding to universities (from both provincial and federal government)
    • Reduce tuition fees
    • Make UHOP OHIP (get rid of private insurance for international students and have them instead get OHIP coverage)
  • Union works to help the environment
    • Political action around climate change
    • Transforming workplaces to be more environmentally friendly (recycling, installing solar/wind)
  • Unionization Process
    • Ontario law says we need 40% minimum card signing to have a vote on unionization (need 40% of Tas and RAs on campus to sign)
    • Then CUPE files for unionization with the Ontario Labour Board, and there is a campus-wide vote. If we get 50 + 1, then a union is formed, and bargaining starts
    • Will be a digital process
    • Learn more here: https://organizeuw.org/post/process/

Issues Environment Graduate Student Are Facing: Sandra Biskupovic

  • No protection for graduate students working as TAs and RAs, leaves them open to exploitation by the school to be overworked
  • No third party to mediate issues between students and their supervisor/Waterloo
  • Grad students often work for their supervisors as RAs. Worry about creating conflict with their supervisor when they push back about hours they are working, or jobs they are being asked to do.
  • No one to protect students from harassment
  • No clear/consistent hiring process

How Unionization Could Solve Those Problems: Graham Cox

  • Creates clear guidelines for work
    • When you unionize, you get a collective agreement (contract that applies to everyone). Agreement is negotiated with the university out outline roles and responsibilities of the employer, and the employee.
    • Clarifies the work that employee is expected to do, and what the employer had to do to facilitate that work, and make sure that the environment is safe
  • Stops overworking of students
    • Collective agreement outlines pay and hours you work. If you go over, you have the ability to go to the union and saying you are working too much/not on the right things.
    • Union files a grievance with the university (not with your supervisor). As the employer, the university is responsible for following the collective agreement.
    • Waterloo will get fined if they break the rules of the collective agreement
  • Dealing with harassment
    • CUPE has language in almost all of their collective agreements about harassment
    • Union has many legal processes to enforce a safe work environment
    • Handled through health and safety committee since it is a workplace hazard
  • Hiring Process
    • Collective agreement will outline the process that the university has to follow
    • Provides clarity for students
    • Gets rid of the favouritism that happens with TA hires

A student in the townhall explains why grad students need a union

  • GSA is recognized by UW as the official representative of all graduate students, but was not set up to be a labour union
    • No collective agreement to enforce, no legal authority to enforce rights
    • Lack of a network of stewards in every department to advocate and represent student workers
  • Graduate students have a voice and vote in UW decisions, but don't have a lot of clout in these decisions
    • UW has ‘waited out’ GSA representatives and then restarted negotiations; e.g., Policy 30 (TAs) has been under review for years; GSA sought to include RAs, was led to believe this would happen but then idea was abandoned by UW in subsequent year (when new GSA reps arrived)
  • UW administrators have expressed the view that a graduate degree is a financial investment (like a house) that will pay off later, which justifies going into debt
    • If UW administrators have this mentality, then we cannot rely on their good faith to ensure that graduate student workers are protected and supported
  • Graduate TAs in some departments face arbitrary and extreme penalties, e.g., losing $250 for showing up late to proctor an exam
  • Jobs and pay are allocated inconsistently and unfairly (e.g., graduate students working as sessional instructors are paid half what a professor is paid)

Graham Cox:

  • No way for a GSA to be a labour union
  • Waterloo is one of the last among major public universities to have a union for graduate student (not including the province of Alberta)
  • Waterloo graduate student are making less per hour (nearly $8) than other students at other schools: https://organizeuw.org/post/ta-wages-whynotwaterloo-part-1/
  • Missing other funding supports like support for buying equipment to teach online, childcare support

Students’ Questions:

  1. How has Waterloo handled COVID-19 compared to other schools, and would a union change that?

    • Graham Cox:

    Has observed that campuses are safer when there are unions with health and safety committees

  2. How do I get involved?

    • Sophie Sanniti:

    Email us (see below), check out the OrganizeUW website (see below), come talk to us in Waterloo Park (see event below)

    • Waterloo has a card signing trainer to help people get involved

Helpful Resources:

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.