Faculty Discussion Series on Unionization #2: Faculty of Applied Health Sciences


Organize uWaterloo and CUPE are pleased to present the next webinar in our 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!

Dec 3, 2020 10:00 AM — 11:00 AM
Faculty of Applied Health Sciences - Organize uWaterloo Webinar
Online webinar
This live event has finished.

Note: 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 Applied Health Sciences, among attendees and on this page. Attendee names will remain anonymous.



  • Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE): Graham Cox
  • Recreation & Leisure Studies Representative: MK
  • School of Public Health & Health Systems Representative: Sue
  • Kinesiology Representative: Kalsha

What is CUPE

  • A national Union with 700,00 members across the country and 300,00 members within the province of Ontario
    • Presently Canada's largest union
    • CUPE represents about 25% of people on campus (non-faculty folx)
    • CUPE is rooted in a democratic heritage and operates as a democracy
    • CUPE is a national public sector unit who represents the broader public sector
    • CUPE is comprised of 225 bargaining units, which is the unit beneath the local that deals with specific local agreements
  • CUPE assists in organizing academic workers
    • Activity within the unions all member-driven
    • Proudly represents a diverse range of folx, including marginalized backgrounds and communities
    • 60% of CUPE membership is female—women are the front runners of this organization
    • Actively fights for the rights of workers
  • CUPE establishes unionization via card-signing campaigning
    • By signing a card (electronically), folx are signing up to be a member of CUPE
    • GOAL: To establish a CUPE local within the university
      • A CUPE local will look after the collective agreements within the university through democratic governing
      • All individual locals are a part of the greater national CUPE organization

Visit cupe.ca for further information

The Ontario University Workers Committee

Currently, the Ontario University Workers Committee is comprised of:

  • 18 institutions
  • 41 locals
  • 79 collective agreements
  • 8,200 sessional instructors
  • 21,000 TA/RAs
  • 1,200 post-docs
    • CUPE started organizing post-doctoral students more recently because of the recent shift in post-doctoral processes

At this time, there is only ONE CUPE local at the University of Waterloo. Local 796 represents Food Services and Plant Operations workers.

The Democratic Structure of CUPE

  • Main Focus: Creating local autonomy.
    • Locals have a lot of power within CUPE to pursue what is of interest to them.
    • It is local democracy
    • The main active component of the union is at the local level
    • The local have the main say in the bargaining decisions.
  • There is a non-interference standard in local democracy.
    • CUPE representatives external to the local (i.e. a national representative) are forbidden from pushing their own agenda on the local level
    • All decisions must be made from the bottom, up.
    • CUPE representatives external to the local are simply there as support

CUPE Resources

CUPE has the capacity to offer the following supports and resources to CUPE locals:

  • National representative
  • Research
  • Legal support
  • Communications (i.e. campaigns & outreach)
  • Education reps for training (i.e. for collective bargaining and enforcing local agreements, finances, how to have a meeting)
  • Health and safety (i.e. initiatives on campus including hazardous issues on campus)
  • Human rights (i.e. human rights and equity in the work place)

CUPE Political Campaigns

CUPE assists in facilitating campaigns on a local level to achieve the following:

  • Reduce precarious employment
  • Stop contracting out
  • Expand benefits and pension coverage
  • Increase cleaning standards
  • Increase public funding
  • Reduce tuition fees
  • Make UHIP OHIP for international students
  • Responding to COVID-19 in the workplace

Organizing a Local

To establish a union presence on campus, the following must be considered:

  • The Ontario Labour Relations Board requires 40% of teaching assistants and research assistants to sign cards in an effort tot get a vote
    • Typically, CUPE prefers not to file until they reach 50%
    • Card signing (electronically) is a 2-step process. First, you sign online. Second, you will receive an email confirmation directing you to the final signature step.
  • Once 40-50% of the TA/RA population at the university sign cards, we can file at the Labour Board, which reviews the cards.
    • The Labour Board will call a vote 1-week later, which they will administer
    • A union will be established if 50% +1 vote yes
  • All votes are completely anonymous and go directly to the Labour Board (the employer never gets to see who signed a card)

Why Unionize (with CUPE) at the University of Waterloo?

  • Many students were in favour of CUPE's democratic nature
  • Many students have had positive experiences with a CUPE local at other institutions
  • Students at the University of Waterloo acknowledge that it is the only university in Ontario without a union for teaching assistants, research assistants and sessional instructors
    • As such, many students are in favour of having a union presence on campus
  • There have been reported issues regarding overwork, pay inequalities and negative working environments for TAs, RAs and sessional instructors
  • CUPE is very experienced in the higher education sector
  • CUPE already deals with Waterloo as an employer due to the presense of Local 796 on campus

What Issues Are Workers Facing in Applied Health Sciences?

Examples of specific areas of concern within AHS:

  • Having to work over 10 hours a week because the demands of experiments in wet lab TA
  • Challenges with juggling experiments and working as a full-time TA
  • An instance of 1 TA for 250 students
  • A lack of expectations and clarity from professors
  • Challenges with the transitions to online learning—minimal support
  • Promissory notes and job contracts are not presented in a way that is equitable or sustainable for students
  • Experiences where promissory notes have been redacted
  • Because some RA/TA positions are paid partly through honorariums (grants) and partly through a working role (wages), students have experienced challenges in obtaining additional scholarships
  • Lack of wage equity
  • Emphasis on the experience of international students

Q&A Period

Question: What % of students in AHS have gotten a student card thus far

Answer: This information will not be released at this time; however, we can confirm that there has been significant progress so far. CUPE representatives have an obligation to keep this information anonymous.

Question: Most of the talk here is about rights for members of the union. What are the anticipated additional responsibilities that will come along with this for members? E.g. hours tracking, etc.

Answer: Standard processes will be outlined in the contract, specifying the number of hours you will be allowed to work. This will not and cannot be changed in the spur of the moment and you will not be required to change the ways in which you currently track hours. However, if there appears to be an issue with this, CUPE may run campaigns to, for example, enforce filing grievances. The goal actually would be sit down with the university in advance to confirm that there are enough TA's hired to ensure that students are not over worked, then CUPE will ensure that those obligations are fulfilled by the University.

Question: Why would UW (admin) prefer to stick with the current model rather than seeing us form a union?

Answer: Flexibility is the main issue around this current situation. Right now, you have every department establishing their own rules. What CUPE then does, is try to bring everyone to the same level. This means bringing everyone up in terms of wages and decide on a number of hours that is fair for everyone across the university. The down side for the admin is that they'll now have to deal with a fully resourced organization that represents student interests. There is a legally binding contract that they are not able to change on a whim at any point just because they want to, they actually have to think about what they're going to be doing for the next 3 years, discuss it with TA's and both sides have to agree. The university is not being forced into something they do not agree to, but ultimately, it is an agreeance between the university and its students.

Question: How much would union dues be?

Answer: Dues would be negotiated as part of our collective agreement. Paying dues would be negligible in terms of how much money we would have to pay to the union because of how substantial the potential raise in wages may be. Currently, University of Waterloo students are paid about $8.00 less an hour than the national average, so we would be able to negotiate a raise that would include the value of the dues that we would pay as well.

In addition, the dues are a fixed percentage. The dues for the national organization are 0.85%. That due goes to the national organization to fund the resources you would receive from CUPE. You get to determine the remainder of those dues and you'd keep them at the local level. The average dues in CUPE are about 1.5 % of payroll and that refers specifically to base payroll, if you do extra work, you do not pay dues on that. Dues are part of what makes a union work and keeps us independent from the employer, and the government, while allowing you to be both democratic and independent.

Question: How often do you go on strike?

Answer: The decision to strike or not strike is not made by CUPE national, it's made by each local on campus. It is done by a vote, the same way a collective agreement is done. Some campuses prefer to strike more often, but it is just the local CUPE that decides to go on strike—schools do not coordinate this. The decision to strike will be based on our University of Waterloo local and the desire of the membership. Most collective agreements (95%), are completed and signed without a strike. Strike action is always the last resort.

Question: UW is in the process of confronting practices that have left the BIPOC community underserved or even mistreated, and the same could be said for some female grad students, how would CUPE help address these experiences of racism and sexism?

Answer: We recently had an anti-racism webinar; the recording can be found on organizeUW.org. The academic sector in CUPE is one of the leading voices in terms of seeking out collective agreement language and setting up structures within their local unions to address harassment, sexism, racism, etc. as it appears in the work place and in the union itself. We address this using our collective agreement database that stores all the language that's been negotiated by CUPE locals across the country. CUPE also has full-time staff that work on equity issues, specifically within the context of the working environment. Anti-harassment language is standard in collective agreements and it is enforced by enforcing language and having an advocate for anyone on the receiving end of harassment, sexism, racism, etc. within the workplace. This means that you will not be required to directly confront the systemic aspect of that discrimination alone and you will have a full-time staff person advocate for you. The onus is always put back on the employer. In addition, CUPE helps to organize campaigns internally and partner with external organizations who are actively engaged in this work.

Question: Waterloo is a fiercely individualized, meritocratic, and silo-ed institution, be design. How do you plan to address the kind of deep individualism that exists within the student body here, especially given that we will all be asked to pay dues?

Answer: The union is you. The union will come in and dictate how you should do things. Instead, they will help facilitate the democratic process. By singing the union card, you are making an individual choice. It allows you to become part of a process that allows you more rights under an extra piece of legislation that you do not have access to right now because you are not unionized.

Question: With the potential that there are a number of people who are anti-union and how do we deal with people who want to defund the union?

Answer: Decertification campaigns exist, but are rare. This is because as soon as you establish a union, you are establishing a democratic government. This means that if you do not agree with the union, you are still able to attend a meeting and have your voice be heard. You deal with this by having a discussion, a process, a place and a time to hear those voices and the union is there to facilitate that.

Question: You partially addressed this and we will hear more in the full webinar on this but just briefly, how would union participation/card signing affect international students? I have heard some concern that there may be a negative effect.

Answer: There will be an international student's webinar in January—details will be posted on the website soon. The union represents international workers across multiple areas of the economy and there is an international confederation of unions. For international students specifically, the rights within the collective agreement apply the same way as they would to domestic students.

International students have presented reservations in signing the union card because it can be seen as a very political act in some international jurisdictions and some do not realize that the act of signing a union card in Canada is protected under the law. To be clear, no one can retaliate against you in Canada for singing a union card. There seems to be room here for further education on this for international students in particular.

Question: In RLS, our work is tied to guaranteed funding. Having been on both ends of the instructor/ TA dynamic, I am curious about how failure to perform adequately as a TA may be addressed in the CBA? With that, what about holding instructors accountable for performance, especially sessional who I have had poor experiences with.

Answer: There would be different bargaining agreements and separate collective agreements for instructors and grad students. The agreement will hold them accountable in terms of the quality of teaching. Outlining pedagogy, training, etc. is something that CUPE does regularly in collective agreements. Paid training is negotiated in many of our agreements in the university sector and CUPE highlights and negotiates a language around instructor evaluations. They look at the latest research in evaluation and if student evaluations are effective. It appears that instructor evaluations are poor, CUPE will turn the conversation over to the employer, because ultimately, it is the responsibility of the university to provide a high quality of education.

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.