Dana Porter Library on University of Waterloo campus.


In December, more than 90 per cent of graduate student workers at the University of Waterloo voted in favour of forming a labour union with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).  

A year ago, the OrganizeUW union drive also resulted in the organization of sessional lecturers. These efforts have generated excitement for continued expansion to other workers at the University of WaterlooUW as well. Please reach out to OrganizeUW organizers if you can help.  

After contending with extremely low total pay amid the rising cost of living, these workers can now negotiate with their employer for better pay and working conditions.   

In Ontario, more than 40 per cent of all workers must sign a union card form to simply trigger a vote on whether to form a labour union. The OrganizeUW effort took over three years and involved thousands of conversations across campus and over 3000 union card forms signed.  

In this article, I’d like to explore some of what we learned, so that you, too, can organize your workplace to improve your working conditions and pay.  

Why does this matter?

Many graduate students are tired of working long hours as apprentice researchers for much less than minimum wage, with an amount of approximately $18,000 yearly (after tuition) being typical for a PhD student. This is completely unlivable when the minimum living wage in Waterloo Region is $20.90 per hour, according to the Ontario Living Wage Network.   

The OrganizeUW union drive is part of a resurgence of labour organizing across North America after decades of decline largely caused by attacks on unions by big business and  governments during the Cold War. Prior to this large-scale decline, union struggles had won 8-hour workdays for most workers, inequality was massively reduced, public-payer healthcare was won, and much more. This is because labour unions give improved legal labour protections as well as the (legally protected) power to organize and collectively bargain as an equal with their employer  for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. It’s time to organize and fight back for a future with real democratic and working-class power.  

There is no magic bullet, but I’ll share some lessons from our three-and-a-half-year campaign.  

Organizing your workplace will eventually require reaching most of the workers at your workplace, in your journey to create a strongly united workplace. Some workplaces can be more challenging to organize due to the toxic and competitive ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset.—Work can be hard and often awful, and most of us don’t always cope in healthy ways.  

Start small. Take time to get to know your workplace and coworkers. Test the waters carefully at first by commiserating or asking about problems at your workplace, especially if your employer is known to be especially anti-union.   

If you’ve built up trust, you can try broaching the idea of unionizing as a solution. You will want a small core of a few trusted people that you can work with to start branching out and organizing other workers, ideally without the boss or managers knowing. You can also start small collective actions by banding together as a group—for example, you could propose a workplace solution to a hazard that your manager would ignore if just one person brought it up.   

Practice making decisions collectively – ideally by consensus (or vote if necessary). Remember there is power and safety in numbers. This core of organizers will be the seed from which your future union and the workplace you want can sprout and grow.  

Reach out for support and backup.

Unless you’re an experienced union organizer, you’ll want to have the help of a larger existing labour union or the Waterloo Region Labour Council. It’s incredibly helpful to talk to people who have experience organizing a workplace. Pick a union that is active and whose workers support it; look for one that has democratic principles and autonomous structures, and is well established in your sector. Consulting online resources, like those at Organizing 4 Power or following the latest Canadian labour organizing efforts for inspiration, can be very helpful as well.  

With your trusted core of organizers, figure out who to talk to next based on who you interact with regularly and trust. Start with people who are likely supportive and share your concerns. Don’t expect others to be on board after just one conversation—a lot of people haven’t thought about this much before and will need some time.  

Intentionally study your workplace.

Take notes, use a spreadsheet, map it out if needed. Look for possible natural leaders or people whose opinions others follow. Find safe places to talk to people or create social events and spaces where people can interact and get to know each other away from the boss. Keep track of people’s opinions on unionization if needed. Figure out who might already agree with you and who might be a problem or if there are existing staff associations or committees that might be a barrier.  

Agitate, Educate, Organize.

The key to growing the union drive will involve having many conversations with intentionality and actively listening to others. Agitate, by asking about issues people have in their workplace and having them elaborate on how those come about and impact their lives. Once it’s clear that a co-worker has frustrations with their work situation, educate by asking about or proposing collective solutions, including the creation of a union. If a person agrees, organize, by asking them to do something: sign a union card, talk to another co-worker about it, come chat with the organizing committee, etc. Kindly follow up with people after a reasonable amount of time. It’s not a favour if it’s in their interest, too!  

Listen! Don’t preach.

People don’t want to be preached at, talked down to, or sold something. Ask questions and aim to spend most of a conversation listening—if you make this a habit, you’ll learn a lot about your workplace, as well as developing trust and empathy between yourself and others. Do not assume the worst of someone for a single “bad” opinion or remark; but take the time to understand while trying to keep focused on the issue at hand as much as possible. Be wary of people who are firmly anti-union, but otherwise don’t completely write anyone off. Relate things back to people’s own interests and address real concerns as they come up. Reassure people with truthful information.  

Food brings people together.

People naturally want to gather to share food, and this can be a powerful way to reach groups of people you otherwise may never see.  

Go beyond mere legality.

You are the union! Aside from managers with the ability to hire and fire, all the workers in your workplace are the union. Aim to build a sense of solidarity and support between workers and the surrounding community. Maintain mass engagement as your union takes shape, including after your successful union vote. It can be challenging and a lot of work at times, but going beyond legal necessities to make a caring and engaged local union, will make it that much stronger and your workplace so much more enjoyable to work in.  

All the best with your organizing. May you not only get what you need at work, but also help to build the world we all so desperately need.