Union efforts by UW Grad students face first vote

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Courtesy Organize uWaterloo

Graduate students at UW are looking to unionize. 

The process, which began in November, 2019, will be put to a vote between July 20 and July 24, 2020, when the Graduate Student Association (GSA) – the official representative for graduate students at UW –  will determine whether or not they formally support unionization.

“It’s a very difficult time to be a graduate student and a graduate student worker, even pre-COVID 19, [because] the wages and supports at Waterloo, like at many other universities, put students below the poverty line, which makes it very hard if you’re a single student without a support network or you’re trying to raise a family,”  Lynne Sargent, a GSA Councillor for the philosophy department, said. 

“I did my masters at McMaster University, so I saw the ways that the union helped there, enshrining standards for when you’re a TA, making sure that you don’t go over your hours, making sure that you have a binding contract, delineating what you’re going to do, having paid health and safety training, and that’s so important,” Sargent said. 

When Imprint asked UW if the university supported graduate students unionizing, UW provided a statement that did not directly address unionizing: 

“Graduate students play incredibly important roles at the University of Waterloo. They are a diverse set of learners and knowledge creators, and they directly contribute to the University’s core missions of teaching and learning,”  Jeff Casello, Associate Vice-President of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, said. 

In undergraduate courses, especially, where class sizes can exceed 500 students, graduate student TAs are often the first point of contact for students. 

“They’re the people who are having the most one-on-one interfacing with students,” Sargent said.

Graduate students are also responsible for tasks like grading, and often lead tutorials and labs where students get more in-depth and hands-on experience with the materials. 

“They really are integral to the undergraduate experience,” Sargent said. 

“There’s simply no way that professors could do all the grading and work that TAs do without their support.” 

Given their fundamental role in the success of the university, graduate students are looking forward to unionization as a tool to provide them with a better way to advocate their needs as workers. 

According to OrganizeUW, the official website for the unionization movement, “The main goal of a union is having a collective say over working conditions.” 

“Unionization is really important because it means that graduate student workers are on an equal footing with the administration at the university,” Sargent said. 

According to OrganizeUW, “the lack of a union has meant diminished ability to affect our working conditions, get fair wages, lower health and safety protocols, no clear or consistent hiring processes, unchallenged harassment, and no support for mental health services, and dealing with problems with work or overwork alone.” 

OrganizeUW’s goals, which can be found on their website, include measures that will ensure safety, protection, job security, and supports for graduate student workers. 

While there are some perceived risks that can accompany unionization, namely that individuals may experience backlash for unionizing, “any retaliation that individual students might experience is 100 percent illegal,”  Sargent said. 

Unionization is incredibly common in Canada. UW is one of the last Canadian universities without a union for graduate students who work for the university.

Sargent clarified that union efforts are also concerned with making sure that all graduate students are represented, but not just those who are employees. 

“Unionization also tends to improve conditions for graduate students who aren’t workers,” Sargent said. “In general, unionization would be very good for the GSA’s constituents.” 

In November 2019, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) Council first expressed interest in unionizing. 

In January of 2020, close to 80 percent of the GSA Council voted to recommend to the GSA Board of Directors that they reviewed unionization. 

On July 20, 2020, the Council will vote based on the Board’s report, and officially decide whether or not they will unionize. 

Imprint reached out to the GSA Vice President, David Billedeau, who refrained from commenting until after the final GSA vote. 

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