Sessional instructors at the University of Waterloo voted to unionize, after years of facing substandard working conditions and compensation well below sector norms. UW’s sessionals, who include course instructors with one- and two-term teaching contracts, were among the last short-term contract academic staff in Canada to unionize. When a formal vote was called in December 2022, 83 per cent of sessional instructors voted in favour of unionization, demonstrating the growing desire amongst the university’s contract instructors to achieve a better work environment.
In March 2020, a group of graduate students formed The Committee to Organize uWaterloo (OrganizeUW), a grassroots campaign to unionize academic workers at UW. Initially, graduate student sessional instructors, TAs and research assistants (RAs) organized as one unit, however in the spring of 2021, the sessional drive formed its own bargaining unit, also known as a local, still under the purview of OrganizeUW.
“For years, even prior to officially forming OrganizeUW, there were lots of conversations between sessionals, who were disgruntled and wanted to find ways to improve their working conditions,” explained Nolan Shaw, a PhD candidate and sessional instructor at the Cheriton School of Computer Science.
At universities across Canada, unions have helped academic workers bargain for important job protections and benefits, including hiring transparency, regular wage increases, and health benefits.
“Up until fairly recently, our [per-hour] pay was substantially lower than other universities. It was about a couple years ago, I think, that the university finally resolved to raise the TA pay rate to match other universities,” Shaw said.
In winter 2021, UW proposed a wage increase for graduate student teachers from $33.89 to $45 an hour, which would more closely align with hourly pay rates at universities across the province, though overall compensation would still be below comparable schools.
However, OrganizeUW reported that this wage increase would be accompanied by a reduction in grant and scholarship funding available to graduate students. As a result, the material benefits of the pay increase would be significantly reduced for many students.
“When the TA pay rate went up, I and lots of other graduate students actually saw our overall funding go down, because in order to compensate for this increased pay rate, they actually cut our scholarships. And as a result, these non taxable scholarships [were] replaced with taxable income,” Shaw said.
“In labor speak, people call this type of thing a clawback, where they sort of acquiesce to one demand and then try to find other ways to worsen your circumstances,” Shaw explained.
Not only is compensation low, but working as a sessional or TA can also require unpaid labour. While sessionals receive hourly pay for their assigned work hours — typically established at the start of the term — they are not compensated for any administrative work they must complete before the course begins.
“If you take on a sessional role for a course that you haven’t taught before, and you don’t have the teaching materials, lots of times these materials aren’t provided for you,” Shaw explained. “You [also] need to determine all sorts of administrative requirements for that course, like what the grade distribution will be across assignments or tests and what your late policy will be well before the term actually begins, and this is completely unpaid. There are dozens of hours that are unaccounted for that the university more or less says ‘that’s up to you to figure out.’”
Sessional instructors, as well as TAs, also typically receive less control over which courses they teach than academic staff with longer-term contracts, meaning they may need to review a broader range of educational material in preparation for the term.
“Oftentimes, the educational requirements for an undergrad are broad enough that even within the same program, lots of graduate students might not have been exposed to this material. And the onus of being trained on that material falls entirely upon the graduate students. There is no paid training. You just need to figure it out as you go and catch up on your own time,” Shaw explained.
Furthermore, although graduate students are typically informed about their total number of expected working hours before a class begins, they often receive requests to work additional unpaid hours ad hoc throughout the term.
“Once the course actually gets into its full swing, we’re often put into a position where professors say, ‘Okay, well, you know, we need to get this marked. And if the students don’t get their marks back then, you know, it’s hurting them, right?’” Shaw said.
As a result, instructors sometimes have to choose between providing high-quality feedback that enriches the undergraduate learning experience and sticking to their paid hours.
Low wages and unpaid working hours are just some of the many challenges sessional instructors at UW face. Imprint has previously reported on the limited job security and high turnover rate for academic staff with short-term contracts as well as the minimal protections and benefits sessional instructors have compared to staff with longer term contracts.
Sessional instructors, for example, receive almost no health coverage. “I just want to highlight that it’s extraordinarily rare to have an employer where you more or less receive zero health benefits from working there. This is especially for sessional instructors, who might be working at the university for two or three years [with new contracts every four to eight months]. This is extraordinarily unusual,” Shaw said.
To hold a formal vote on whether employees want to unionize, organizers must wait until a sufficient number of employees have signed a card signalling their desire to unionize. In Ontario, the threshold is 40 per cent.
The process began with getting as many cards signed as possible, which was difficult because there is no central database listing all sessional instructors at the university.
Additionally, unionizing, which is always a challenging process, was made more difficult by the short-term nature of sessional employment.
“As soon as the term starts, there’s sort of a ticking clock in some sense, because some of the sessions who are working that term may be gone four months from [then]. The unionization process isn’t really designed for this extremely high turnover employment situation. So at the start of term, we’re trying to figure out all of the people who are working as sessionals,” Shaw explained.
Although only 40 percent of workers must sign for a formal unionization to be called, organizers often wait to ensure at least half of the workforce will vote in favour of unionization before filing.
Shaw also outlined how unionization can bring benefits to undergraduates whose classes are taught by sessional instructors, explaining how when instructors are able to bargain for increased paid hours or higher wages, they can dedicate more time to providing high quality academic feedback and individual support to their students.
Furthermore, Shaw explained how the poor working conditions also affect the university’s retention rate of instructors.
“You’re going to have people who might have lots of experience having taught the course, but because the working conditions are so poor, they’re going to go somewhere else to look for employment. So you might have people who are very passionate, very educated, very motivated to teach and may have taught at the university for a number of years, who then go elsewhere that really recognizes their value” he said.
OrganizeUW will continue to campaign to help TAs and RAs unionize.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned that “over 90 per cent of sessional instructors voted in favour of unionization.” This has been changed to reflect that the 83 per cent voted in favour. Imprint regrets this error