The grads aren’t alright

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Graphic by: Harshitha Damodaran

From Jan. 23 through 24, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) Council held an e-vote on the following resolution: Be it resolved that the GSA Council supports the formation of a union of graduate TAs, RAs, and sessional instructors at the University of Waterloo and recommends that the GSA Board of Directors review and organize the unionization.

The vote surpassed quorum and included representation from all faculties. 

The results of the vote are as follows:

In favor of the motion (supportive of unionization): 78 per cent

Opposed to the motion (not supportive of unionization): 13 per cent

Abstain: 9 per cent

Let’s talk about the immediate implications for the vote. To clear the air, UW graduate students are not automatically unionized following this month’s GSA Council vote. Organizing a labour union is a multi-stage process detailed under Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, which ultimately requires a formal vote wherein all members of a proposed bargaining unit would have the final say in supporting or opposing unionization.

That said, there are two direct outcomes of this vote. First, the GSA Council (the wing of the GSA tasked with determining the official positions of the GSA as they relate to academic and political representation of graduate students) now supports the formalization of an on-campus labour union representing graduate students. Second, the GSA Board of Directors will now review unionization (and associated student and logistical issues) in more depth and will determine whether to mechanize the GSA to action the Council’s request. 

As an aside, it is important to understand that the GSA is incorporated under Ontario law. Accordingly, the GSA Board of Directors is responsible for overseeing corporate interests of the GSA. 

You may be wondering why the GSA Council, with representatives from all faculties, resoundingly voted to proceed in this direction. 

There are several issues at play, including (but not limited to): Timeliness of pay, discrepancies around compensation paid to students working as sessionals, poor categorization of online instructors/sessional instructors, lack of training, and overwork. Additionally, total compensation for graduate students (specifically graduate TAs) is not aligned with many universities in Ontario and regional cost of living requirements.

As the GSA Vice President, it is clear, to me, that there are pervasive and objectionable issues impacting graduate students at the UW. As part of my role as Vice President of the GSA, I work with students coming to the GSA office who are facing very concerning challenges. 

What sort of challenges? Not being paid for months. Significantly surpassing their allotted TA hours. Supervisors demanding inclusion on publications they had no part in. Unwarranted and aggressive behaviour from faculty members. There have even been allegations of human rights abuses on campus, specifically homophobia, that students feel powerless to address.

To the credit of campus administration, UW does have several policies designed to support graduate students (e.g., Policy 30: Employment of Graduate Teaching Assistants, Policy 33: Ethical Behaviour, Policy 70: Student Petitions and Grievances, etc.). Moreover, I believe that the efforts of campus administration towards improving the graduate student experience through various initiatives and projects (e.g., the Graduate Supervision Taskforce, the Student Experience Review, the Center, graduate supervision guidelines, etc.) are earnest and have been greatly beneficial.

Yet, despite these policies, and even with the GSA’s ongoing collaboration with campus administration to improve the graduate experience, many students are worried about the implications of triggering these procedures in fear of reprisal from their departments. Some students feel that the risk of reporting unethical behaviour may jeopardize the years they’ve invested into their graduate education and research. The GSA’s forthcoming review of unionization will include examining whether a collective agreement would afford more protections to students than the current policy suite on offer by campus administration. 

The GSA appreciates the work being conducted by Jeff Casello, Associate Vice President of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs; Chris Read, Associate Provost, Students; Jim Rush, Vice-President, Academic & Provost; and Feridun Hamdullahpur, President and Vice -Chancellor for their work in supporting graduate students at UW. That said, the GSA Council’s recent vote makes clear that more action is required on a striking array of issues. A swath of universities and their on-campus student associations across Canada have addressed similar problems raised in this article via unionization, and the GSA is now embarking on a review to determine if this course of action is appropriate for UW graduate students. 

To that end, the GSA will be engaging with all of our members to determine how best to ameliorate the academic, professional, and social experience of graduate students on campus. Wider community feedback will guide our path forward on unionization and other areas of importance.

To our supervisors, mentors, and friends across all faculties, and to the UW administration, I hope you do not see the GSA’s review of unionization as an indication of a lack of willingness to engage with you. Quite the contrary. This vote is an indication that the GSA is, more than ever before, willing to collaborate and advocate for the advancement of equitable and fair treatment of graduate students on campus. In order to reach that goal, I hope that the relationship between the GSA and the wider campus community continues to be predicated on mutual respect and teamwork. 

To the graduate student community, please note that the GSA will be seeking your feedback on this topic later in the term. In the interim, I recommend that graduate students keep up with all GSA news via our social media channels:

  • Instagram: @gsa.uwaterloo
  • Facebook: @gsauw
  • Twitter: @GSA_UWaterloo

Should you be interested in becoming involved in GSA governance (i.e., Board and Council) or operations, I encourage you to review our website for more information. If you have questions, please feel free to contact the GSA office

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