Academic workers at the University of Waterloo are joining forces to form a union for full-time and part-time graduate students.
They're called the Committee to Organize uWaterloo. It's a grassroots organization looking to improve the working conditions and mental health supports for graduate teaching assistants, graduate research assistants and contract or sessional instructors at UW, by forming a collective agreement with the university.
After receiving the support of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the organization has started the legal process of unionizing with a union card signing campaign.
One organizer and PhD student, Sara Marsh, says they need over 40 per cent of workers to sign a union card before they can file an application with the labour board and hold a vote, a process which could take a couple years to complete.
"We've already had some immediate effects," said Marsh, "Last week Waterloo announced some commitments to students as a result of this campaign... We're trying to use what little power we have now to advocate for things during the pandemic."
While Marsh and other working students may not experience the long-term benefits they are currently fighting for before graduating, Marsh says forming this union to help future students is worth it.
"Even if you didn't get anything, and you've only achieved keeping things as they are now, to me it's already a win because it locks it into place and says, 'You can't go backwards.' " said Marsh.
"This [union] gives us a way to have a voice and to make sure that things don't get worse, so to say."
According to Marsh, UW is the only major university within Canada to not have a union for working students. She says many graduate students come to the university from other schools with unions, including herself.
Before attending Waterloo, Marsh had been a part of a sessional instructor union while teaching in Manitoba, and was part of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) while working in public administration in Alberta.
"I've had a really positive experience with unions...one of the reasons I got involved with this union is that I saw these issues over time and I was struggling at finding a way to make some of these things better." said Marsh.
"I long thought we needed a union at Waterloo, but I didn't know how to go about it."
Marsh adds that by organizing a union, it will give working students some bargaining power and control that has often been held by the university.
"They [the university] can cut your pay, they can cut your hours, they can cut the number of TA shifts... They [the university] are only being held to the standards of employment law, not labour law." she said.
"We want to be recognized as workers and want to be treated with respect. Once you have a collective agreement, it becomes more concrete... it's a way of equalizing that power."
The journey of forming a union hasn't been an easy one, says Marsh. COVID-19 brought on some logistic challenges for members of Organize uWaterloo, as some members are international students, and they've also had to adapt their way of communicating to students the campus was shut down.
As a result, Marsh says they began to rely on social media to share their messages, along with digital union cards, which were improved earlier this year.
"It gave me something to do that wasn't my university work, to feel like, 'Okay, I can actually make a difference for university students now.' " said Marsh.
"We've mostly received a positive response... most students are interested in it." said Marsh, "Our really big goal is to give people all that information so that they can choose for themselves and make that informed decision."
With the school year soon starting up, Marsh says Organize uWaterloo will start holding webinars and town halls in the fall with students.
"I never felt any doubt from the start that this was the right thing for Waterloo, I really don't see any negatives to it." said Marsh, "If U of T and Queens, and every other university has it, it really kind of makes you see that it's not really out of the ordinary for grad students to be protected while working."
To learn more about Organize uWaterloo, click here.