A Q&A with OrganizeUW

OrganizeUW is a grassroots drive to unionize TAs, RAs, and sessionals currently underway at the University. We know our members have questions about what this would mean for you and for UW, and OrganizeUW is here to address these questions and concerns!

Please visit their website, especially the FAQs, for more information about eligibility, the unionization process, upcoming events, and more. And if you can’t find an answer to your question, leave it in the comments!

Who is OrganizeUW? Who’s running it, and who on campus would be unionized if you succeed?

OrganizeUW is a grassroots campaign to unionize TAs and RAs at the University of Waterloo. The campaign was started by a small but passionate group of graduate students who wish to improve conditions for student workers at UWaterloo. We come from various faculties, departments, programs, and backgrounds. The campaign is supported by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

There also is a drive to unionize sessional instructors within OrganizeUW. By “sessional instructors” we mean various categories of academic workers (students and non-students) who have contracts less than one year in duration, for which there are many terminologies in use—e.g., “special (sessional) faculty,” “adjunct professors,” “definite-term lecturers,” “research fellows.” Workers in this group are normally not represented by FAUW.

[Ed. note: FAUW represents definite-term lecturers with appointments one year or longer. The term “definite-term lecturers” does also accurately describe sessional instructors.]

Where is the process at right now?

We are in the midst of our card-signing campaign to sign 50% of workers, after which the next step will be applying for Labour Board certification.

What happens once TAs, RAs, and sessionals unionize?

Initially—nothing! Well, mostly. If we decide to unionize, our working conditions will be legally frozen in place until a first collective agreement is negotiated with the university. This provides stability while we work to establish our independent CUPE local. Locking in the current state of affairs also secures an official baseline for future negotiations and protects against cuts. Finally, it allows time to develop proper procedures for the eventual transition to new terms of work. This helps to ensure that everything goes smoothly (in contrast to the disruption from UW’s recent, sudden restructuring of grad funding).

How will faculty relationships with students be affected?

We know that student-faculty relationships are truly fundamental to graduate education. Accordingly, preserving collegiality with you—our mentors, supervisors, colleagues, instructors, and friends—is of the utmost importance. Luckily, the relationship between grad workers and faculty doesn’t suffer from unionization, nor does academic freedom (e.g. Hewitt, 2000; Julius & Gumport, 2002; Lee et al, 2004; Rogers et al, 2013). Faculty consistently report that “based on their experiences, collective bargaining does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor” their advisees (Hewitt, 2000, p. 164). A recent, comprehensive review of the evidence concludes that “despite widespread fears that unionization would damage student–faculty relationships, research is consistent that it does not; in some situations it has improved them” (Cain, 2017, p. 11).

Indeed, beneficial impacts from improved working conditions ripple upwards and outwards. Stronger protections, clearer job expectations, fairer access to jobs, and improved ability to meet basic needs without taking on off-campus work will all mean healthier, more productive TAs. Research shows that accountability, communication, and respect are often higher in unionized settings, along with other benefits that promote a collegial atmosphere (Cain, 2017; DeCew, 2003).

Might faculty members’ workload increase because there will be fewer TAs?

We have heard sincere worries that our unionizing will lead to cuts in TA positions, ultimately resulting in even more work and stress for faculty. We know how overworked you are, that it’s often difficult to balance doing research with providing high-quality education to students. Especially during COVID-19, people sometimes need to make difficult tradeoffs between their own mental health, family commitments, and the quality of their courses. Once again, while logical, this is ultimately not borne out by the evidence (e.g. Hewitt, 2000; Rogers et al, 2013; Schenk, 2007). Unionization at virtually every other university, from U of T to Queen’s, Laurier to Western, UBC to Dalhousie, and many more, has had minimal impact on universities’ ability to hire TAs/RAs to support the academic work of departments. In some cases, hiring has actually increased (Hewitt, 2000). As students work less unpaid “shadow overtime” and people can take much-need breaks (e.g. sick leave), additional hiring is required to maintain quality assistance to course instructors.

How would unionization affect the University financially?

UW is in a “healthy financial position,” thanks in no small part to workers’ sacrifices during the pandemic. When faced with cost increases in some areas and savings in others, UW chose to preemptively enact budget measures that have strained employees’ finances, workloads, and well-being. Sessional job cuts, hiring freezes, “supersized” enrollments,indiscriminate holdbacks— these weren’t faits accomplis; a budget is always made out of decisions on how to spend it. Going forward, as outliers among our unionized peers, it’s simply untrue that it’s too expensive to pay precarious academic workers a living wage.

Furthermore, a collective agreement must be agreed to by all parties. TAs, RAs, and sessionals would never bargain for (or vote to ratify) a contract that leaves us worse off. Provisions that would do real harm to the institution’s core mandate or continued existence would be simply unacceptable to both UW and union members. This doesn’t happen at any other schools, and it won’t happen at UW either.

What else do you want faculty members to know about the union drive?

Years of austerity politics and cuts to public funding have often divided us and left all of us at UW to fight for scraps. These policies promote the narrative that TAs, RAs, and sessionals are out to “grab a larger piece of the pie,” pitting our interests against yours and claiming there’s only enough money for some of us. The result is a zero-sum game in which we race to the bottom and those on the lowest rungs of the academic ladder don’t have the financial means to live, let alone thrive or aspire to better.

This game must end.

COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated many long-standing systemic issues at UW and made real change even more urgent. Meaningfully addressing these issues requires structural change. This change will come when students, sessionals, lecturers, and tenured faculty start organizing together to improve our working conditions. We strongly believe a union for TAs, RAs, and sessionals is a key part of this change. Academic unions are a long-standing, proven, legally-protected, achievable mechanism to democratically address systemic problems.

How can interested faculty members offer support?

Here are some quick ways you can help out right now:

  1. Fill out our 4–5-minute survey form to privately register your support!
  2. Share this post with faculty and sessional colleagues.
  3. Talk to grad students you know about unionization.
    1. You are allowed to speak about the union drive and to express your support. This right is protected by academic freedom and under the law.
    2. You are not allowed to ask students or sessionals about their involvement in the process and there can be no direct or indirect coercion, threats, promises or undue influence as a consequence of union support (or lack thereof).
  4. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and boost/re-share our posts.
  5. Reach out to us at organizeuw@joincupe.org or via our social media.

Your support as a faculty member is extremely valuable in helping us to get the word out and build support across campus. We must all come together and ensure good and fair working conditions for every member of the university. To that end, we reach out our hand in solidarity.

References

Cain, T. R. (2017). Campus unions: Organized faculty and graduate students in U.S. higher education [Monograph]. ASHE Higher Education Report, 43(3), 7–163. https://doi.org/10/gkr75z

DeCew, J. W. (2003). Unionization in the academy: Visions and realities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hewitt, G. J. (2000). Graduate student employee collective bargaining and the educational relationship between faculty and graduate students. Journal of Collective Negotiations in the Public Sector, 29, 153–166. https://doi.org/10.2190/P07G-C8RF-5GG0-4VH8

Julius, D. J., & Gumport, P. J. (2002). Graduate student unionization: Catalysts and consequences. Review of Higher Education, 26, 187–216. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2002.0033

Lee, J. J., Osegura, L., Kim, K. A., Fann, A., Davis, T. M., & Rhoads, R. A. (2004). Tangles in the tapestry: Cultural barriers to graduate student unionization. Journal of Higher Education, 75, 340–361. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2004.11772259

Rogers, S. E., Eaton, A. E., & Voos, P. B. (2013). Effects of unionization on graduate student employees: Faculty-student relations, academic freedom, and pay. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 66, 487–510. https://doi.org/10.1177/001979391306600208

Schenk Jr., T. (2007). The effects of graduate-student unionization (Publication No. 14882;) [Master’s thesis, Iowa State University]. Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/14882

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