When it comes to unionization, UW lags behind post-secondary institutions across the province and nation. It remains one of the few universities in Canada, and the last university in Ontario, to not have a union for its graduate student employees.
“Unionization is definitely something the university should look into, especially because a lot of people are paying money to come from all over the world to study here,” agrees second-year student Mariam Tawfik. “It’s something that will help us, and something that we expect from our university.”
OrganizeUW, supported by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), is a grassroots campaign that aims to unionize academic employees at UW. The union drive first started three years ago, partly through students serving on the Graduate Student Association (GSA) Council.
“Students found the Graduate Student Association wasn’t able to have any impact on our pay and benefits from UW so there was a union drive launch from there to remedy this to give us the tools to actually bargain,” explains Andrew Reeves, another OrganizeUW member and recent physics and astronomy graduate.
In January 2021, the GSA published a letter in support of the then-new student-led unionization campaign, OrganizeUW. Two years later in January 2023, sessional instructors at UW successfully filed for unionization.
Filing for unionization is the first step in forming a labour union, which is a democratic body of workers.
“They’re usually broken down into bargaining units, groups of workers that do similar work, student workers that do teaching and research assistant duties during our studies,” Reeves says.
After filing for unionization, the bargaining process can then begin.
“The bargaining process looks like electing representatives who will stick for us if issues arise but also who will represent us during the bargaining process where a collective agreement is formed and negotiated with the employer and is always voted for in the end,” Reeves explains.
OrganizeUW member and English PhD student Kavi Duvvoori believes that unionization is “definitely much more in the conversation now” among university students for several reasons.
For one, there are many high-profile organizing campaigns in North America from the writers strike in Hollywood that just ended, and the week-long strike this June where more than 3,000 Starbucks employees from over 150 locations protested the ban of Pride Month decorations in their stores. In July 2023 alone, graduate workers at Stanford University and graduate academic assistants at the University of British Columbia both voted to unionize.
Duvvoori also thinks that the broader climate in which “the increase in cost of living for many, especially with that affordability of housing and other cost of living issues — has led many more to think about what we have to do to change that.”
According to Duvvoori, another motivation for unionizing was knowing that there were legal protections in place throughout the bargaining process that position student workers on equal footing to their employer. Some of these protections include the right to collective bargaining and the right to retaliation.
“Our campaign now is to unionize TAs and RAs on campus,” Duvvoori says. “Sessionals at UW filed for unionization through a successful campaign through OrganizeUW and are starting the process of bargaining their first contract. Facility workers and food workers have a union local here as well.”
Imprint reached out to UW Food Services and the St. Jerome’s University Academic Staff Association (SJU ASA), both of which are unionized, for comment.
On behalf of Food Services, UW senior manager of media relations and issue management David George-Cosh that the university is “committed to supporting [their] staff’s well-being — professionally and personally, and [they] have historically enjoyed excellent relations with our teachers, researchers and staff.”
George-Cosh added that “while [they] respect our staff’s right to organize, [they] do not believe that unionization is necessary to maintaining this strong relationship.”
The SJU ASA did not respond to Imprint’s request for comment.
“This school is world-renowned, and people from all around the world come here for their programs,” says second-year student Bishoy Abdelnour. “I think that there should be a union here, and that’s just the bare minimum.”
One explanation Reeves suggests for UW’s lack of a union for its graduate students is the entrepreneurship mentality the university is known for. When students are so busy achieving the next mile-marker in their education or landing the perfect co-op job, “organizing collectively can become more difficult.”
“Some of that ‘by your own bootstraps’ mentality prevents people from considering more collective forms of organizing to meet all of our needs together, and that’s because we’re just so busy,” Reeves says.
OrganizeUW currently requires greater than 40 per cent of working graduate students to hold a union card though they’re aiming for higher. TAs and RAs can talk to an organizer and sign a card on organizeuw.org so that there can be a vote on whether to form a union.
“When we do that, we will be able to file for that vote to form the union, and then we can begin elective representatives and collective bargaining and collecting those demands together,” Reeves says.
OrganizeUW wants to hear these demands throughout this fall term and plans to hold a town hall to gather people’s issues and get people talking about what they need to succeed in their studies and work.
“The union that’s created isn’t just a separate entity that does things for us or to us. A union is our union, it’s made of the workers,” Reeves says. “The workers are the union.”