The University of Waterloo (UW) is the only remaining university in Ontario without a union for teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs) and sessional instructors. Organize UW is a grassroots campaign looking to solve that problem. The organization was founded in March of 2020 by graduate students hoping to improve working conditions at UW.
Organize UW is working with CUPE, The Canadian Union for Public Education, the largest academic union in Ontario. Without a union, TAs, RAs and sessional instructors have less protections when it comes to negotiating wages, working conditions, employment conditions, benefits, and many other issues
MK Stinson is a PhD candidate in Recreation and Leisure Studies at UW. She is an RA in that department and a member of Organize UW.
“It’s no secret that the rising cost of living in Kitchener-Waterloo is putting many community members in untenable positions. This is also coupled with an ongoing housing crisis as well as graduate student funding packages that are not increasing alongside inflation and this means that a lot of graduate student workers are being put in very desperate or precarious financial situations and they often live below the poverty line,” Stinson said.
The process for starting a union is outlined in the Labour Relations Act. This process involves two stages: card signing and a vote.
Organize UW is currently at the card signing stage where they must get 40 percent of relevant workers to sign union cards. Once 40 per cent of workers have signed cards, a vote is triggered and if one more than 50 per cent of voters vote in favour, the union is formed. The identity of those who have signed a union card is kept private but signing a card communicates that, if a vote were to be held, the union would have the signer’s support.
“Historically, when the TA rate is raised as per cost-of-living increases, the University of Waterloo reduces student scholarships by the same amount. This results in lower take-home pay for students because TA pay is subject to income tax and payroll deductions (EI, CPP), while scholarship pay is not,” the post said.
Working conditions for TAs and RAs can have especially troubling consequences for international students who are required to pay higher tuition or course-based graduate students who do not receive the graduate experience award. Due to these costs and lack of other sources of funding, many students in these situations rely heavily on TA and RA positions but have trouble finding work.
SM Arslan is an international course-based graduate student in the department of Mechanical and Mechatronics at the university of Waterloo and a member of OrganizeUW.
“I would just like there to be more TA positions because they’ve got the funds…and for the existing TAs the workload sometimes is too much. It’s all over the place, the workload is not consistent. Some departments have to oversee 30 students in other departments they can oversee up to 100. So I want there to be more transparency I want there to be more positions I want better benefits so [international and course-based graduate students] can live a decent life.”
“I will say that the sessionals in the architectural department we’re pretty happy with the status quo up until the moment when we all had our salaries cut after we had started teaching one semester and it came as a surprise to us that this was legal,’’ Scott Sørli, a sessional instructor in the architecture, said.
“[The salary cut] revealed to us that if we were in a union situation that would not have happened. The other thing that has really motivated my work on the union drive is a friend of mine who I worked with for many years who got sick and then was let go because she was unable to complete her teaching that semester and was asked to repay her salary,” Sørli said.
“That’s something that never would have happened if we had a union in place and what that has done is it had a bunch of us sessionals realize that the situation is inevitable and only through unionizing can we have an equitable workplace,” he said.
Organize UW is asking those who wish to support their organization to follow and boost their message on social media as well as engage in personal conversations.
“There’s something to be said about normalizing talking about unionization and the power that comes with unionization. Collective action is extremely effective not only in the workplace, but I do believe that support for our drive and other drives is highly effective in terms of being able to be part of the network or community of support,” Stinson said.