Building stronger together: The people behind CUPE 2278

Union organizers have cited poor working conditions — like inequitable wages and a culture of overworking — as a driving force for organizing.

As people gathered to claim free snacks and hotdogs in front of the Nest, union organizers in highlighter yellow t-shirts approached them.

We’re trying to unionize Work Learn students. Are you a Work Learn?

Organized by the largest union on campus, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 2278, the barbecue aimed to increase awareness regarding the union’s efforts to unionize Work Learn students who hold researcher, research assistant, academic assistant and project assistant positions at UBC.

As organizers and community members exchanged stories, the union was focused on increasing their outreach and education efforts.

CUPE 2278 currently represents UBC’s teaching assistants (TAs), graduate academic assistants (GAAs), exam invigilators and English language instructors.

Fifty per cent of student respondents to the 2023 AMS Academic Experience Survey (AES) said they experienced financial hardship related to tuition and other expenses. Union organizers say poor working conditions — like inequitable wages and a culture of overworking — are why they need a union.

The lack of a union, according to CUPE 2278’s website, has diminished workers' ability to get fair working conditions and wages.

“It has meant lower health and safety protocols, unclear or inconsistent hiring processes, unchallenged harassment, lack of support for mental health, widespread overwork/burnout, and having to deal with problems at work alone.”

According to CUPE 2278, UBC “lags behind” post-secondary institutions that have unionized research assistants, academic and lab assistants and other student worker positions.

“This is despite the fact that the University cannot run without us,” read CUPE 2278’s website.

Here’s a glimpse into some people behind unionization on campus.

Jessica Wolf, component 1 chair

As a mechanical engineering undergraduate at California’s Harvey Mudd College, labour issues weren’t at the forefront of Jessica Wolf's her mind as she dedicated her time to academics.

After graduation, Wolf started working in the aerospace industry, something that seemed like a natural next step. However, during the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown, she began questioning her own relationship with work and stumbled upon Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. This encouraged her to look further into labour issues.

During her short stint in the industry, Wolf realized it wasn’t the right fit for her. She applied for graduate studies at UBC, where she completed her master's in the department of mechanical engineering. Now, she’s pursuing her interest in engineering outreach and education for underrepresented youth through her PhD studies.

Once she started at UBC, she sought to find community through the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association. There, she heard stories of struggle from her graduate students — from an inability to pay their bills and support their families to working with bad supervisors.

Wanting to help improve graduate students' experience, she went to department feedback sessions where faculty members appeared sympathetic, but offered little change, leading Wolf to believe unionization was necessary.

“I personally tried to see the best in people and I believe a lot of the individuals in our departments truly want things better for the grad students, but on the grad student side we wouldn’t see actual change in our conditions,” said Wolf.

Wolf went on to work as an organizer during the CUPE’s GRA union drive in 2022 and she hasn’t looked back since, joining the executive committee as the component 1 chair, representing all TAs at UBC, in November 2023.

“I just wanted to stay involved, and this is the way that makes sense to keep current membership and potential future membership engaged and ready for the next step,” she said. “A lot of it for me, the motivation [is] to continue to try to get people more engaged because this is their future.”

Unionizing drives can be a roller coaster of emotions, but Wolf highlighted how rewarding and inspiring the experience can be.

“I felt most inspired when we've had these collective celebrations … just all of these moments leading up to it, where I really felt like I was playing a part in bringing together our communities and working for positive change,” she said.

Jose Reyeros, member organizer

Fifth-year geography student Jose Reyeros is used to people telling him he’s on their screens. After all, he’s been one of the faces of the union’s Work Learn campaign ads.

His passion for student advocacy has been at the core of his university journey — he has been involved in everything from climate activism to housing justice initiatives.

A Work Learn student himself, Reyeros said his experiences have been a mixed bag. He said he's learned a lot but has also felt undervalued on the job. So, when he heard about the Work Learn unionization drive, it was “a no-brainer” for him to join the campaign as a member organizer.

“It’s something as simple as having a job and still not having the correct compensation and rights and conditions to ... work.”

As an undergrad, Reyeros brings a unique perspective to CUPE 2278 where most organizers are graduate students.

He views his union participation as a positive step. He noted undergraduate students’ work has often been dismissed, and the early experiences that Work Learn provides are valuable but sometimes fail to ensure students can grow and thrive, according to Reyeros.

But, the Work Learn unionization drive is challenging.

Reyeros explained how the numbers are not skewed in the union’s favour, with over 50,000 students on campus, finding those eligible to unionize is not an easy task.

He said in-person canvassing has led him to connect with more student workers. Hearing the diversity of backgrounds and experiences has been the most rewarding, motivating part of Reyeros’s organizing efforts.

“The efforts that people need to be here to do the research and their work, to connect to what they feel passionate about ... Work Learn can be a lifeline for that,” he said.

He also said he hopes this drive allows UBC to hear feedback about the Work Learn program from student workers and use it to improve the program in the future.

Even as he prepares to graduate, Reyeros views the campaign as something important in the long-term.

“Even if you don't see the impact of your contribution, someone will see at some point … a lot of the work that we're seeing today will be impactful for Work Learns for future generations.”

Tina Rothchild, member organizer

Tina Rothchild spends most of their day inside a chemistry lab — they’ve got to experiment, research and write in preparation to defend their doctoral thesis in the fall.

Despite their busy schedule, Rothchild stays involved with CUPE 2278.

“If I do have time, during my lunch break, I'll go and canvas in-person,” said Rothchild.

In 2022, Rothchild started hearing “whisperings” of a GRA unionization drive in the hallways of the chemistry building.

“I was really excited when I heard,” said Rothchild. "I had been frustrated trying to survive in Vancouver on very low wages as a PhD candidate."

Rothchild worked on CUPE 2278's graduate research assistants (GRAs) drive. They said it was their “proudest moment” as a student organizer and encouraged them to remain involved during the GAA and Work Learn organizing campaigns.

GRAs organized to unionize in 2023, however, UBC objected to this addition, arguing GRA work does not fall under the scope of employment. The case has gone to the BC Labour Relations Board. A decision is expected before the end of April.

CUPE 2278 is the first union Rothchild has ever been a part of and their experience has been nothing short of “inspiring.”

“I've learned so much. I feel like I've grown as a person,” said Rothchild. “I've just become more excited about unions and what unions can do for workers.”

Now, as a veteran of three unionization drives, they’re approaching this one with an understanding that potential union members may be less versed with union matters.

As some Work Learns are undergrads, Rothchild likes to take an educational approach in their conversations.

“A lot of graduate students are also already in CUPE 2278, so there's that automatic familiarization with unions,” they said. “Whereas a lot of undergraduate students, they may have never been in a union before and maybe they don't know what a union is, how a union can help them as workers.

"There's definitely a lot more focus on that sort of educational aspect."

Despite an existing familiarity with the union, Rothchild found some graduate students are unaware that they fall under the Work Learn classification.

“Sometimes they think ‘Oh, I’m just a GRA,’ but actually, if you look into where the funding is coming from or what projects are on, they're also a Work Learn,” they said.

Whether experiencing a historical win or a small daily interaction on the ground canvassing, Rothchild said they’re always feeling the support from the student community.

“[It’s] always a wonderful experience to get to talk with a student worker,” they said.

Adrian Matias Bell, member organizer

Adrian Matias Bell loves his job as editor-in-chief for PRISM international, a literary magazine based out of the school of creative writing at UBC, but couldn’t help but notice the differences from his previous job as TA.

“There were a lot of benefits and improved working conditions in place for the TA position that were not we're not in place for my other position,” he said. “I love my job, I really care about it, and I became interested in how I could help to bring those same benefits to Work Learn workers.”

The current Work Learn unionization campaign aims to bridge the gap and inspired Bell to reach out and get involved this fall.

Bell described his typical week as “pretty normal for any grad student” — he’s doing coursework and managing production and finances for the PRISIM.

“I actually spend a fair amount of time and energy every week writing a novel,” said Bell with a laugh.

But, he’ll always dedicate some of his week to the unionization drive, whether that’s through virtual outreach or in-person canvassing. It was through the latter where one of his proudest moments as an organizer happened.

Bell was canvassing a new part of campus, something that can be a nerve-wracking for organizers.

“When you're canvassing a new group of people ... you always kind of wonder how the campaign's going to be received and who you're going to meet.”

There, he stumbled upon a person he had previously chatted with over email, who was with a co-worker unfamiliar with the drive. Bell would explain the drive to them, which would begin an afternoon of hopping from building to building, weaving through a web of Work Learns.

“Then they said, ‘Oh, you should go to this other workplace and we know people there and you should talk to them about the campaign, and you should go into this building where our department also is and talk to those people about the campaign.’”

Bell and his fellow organizer would approach and chat with others

“On the way, having all these great conversations, we would run into even more people. They were just hanging out ... and we would just walk up to them and ask ‘Are you a Work Learn? Do you know about this?’”

Bell said he felt welcomed through his conversations with other students and proud to be part of a “networked web of Work Learns.”

Moments like these create optimism and energy within Bell, who views his role as one of a “listener.”

“[CUPE 2278 is] not an entity that's going to make all of the decisions on how to improve working conditions,” said Bell. “The members are the union, and the union is a way of bringing them together so that they can work collectively.”

Sam Connolly, president

At the helm of CUPE 2278 is Sam Connolly, a physics masters student, machine learning enthusiast and Queer education advocate.

Like many other graduate students, Connolly first got involved through the GRA unionization drive after finding themselves unsatisfied with the financial support for graduate students.

“I'm in a department that has minimum funding for master's students but a lot of departments don't,” said Connolly.

“It's not enough to pay your living expenses.”

Per UBC policy, only PhD students who began their studies after September 1, 2018 receive a minimum funding guarantee for the first four years of their doctorate studies. The policy began in 2018 with $18,000 in funding and was recently raised to $24,000 a year starting in September 2024.

Student advocates, like AMS and Graduate Student Society executives, have been calling for increased funding and support for graduate students, including expanding funding to cover five years of education instead of four. Currently, there is no mandatory minimum funding for master’s students at UBC.

At a town hall held by the physics department, Connolly realized unionization’s importance.

The meeting was set to be a conversation about a recent equity survey concerning gender and wages, but quickly became an avenue for many graduate students to express frustration with their financial precarity.

The 2023 AES found graduate students face “significantly more housing-related financial hardship” than undergraduate students. Graduate students are also overrepresented at the AMS Food Bank for the percentage of the student body they make up.

“There were a number of graduate students at this town hall who shared their experiences of not being able to pay for food, continuing to live in unsafe housing situations, having to access multiple food banks to be able to feed their family and provide for their children,” said Connolly.

Connolly said the meeting was difficult to witness but brought a clear disconnect between the faculty and the students to light.

“I think for me, it made it very clear that asking for more wasn't going to work and that we needed to have more rights as workers because we are researchers, we do work, we create value for the university with the research that we do,” they said.

After the end of the GRA drive in 2022, they ran for component 1 chair before taking up the presidency in November 2023.

Nowadays, Connolly is mostly at the bargaining table with UBC to craft the collective agreement for GAAs.

“Getting people organized and into organized labor is only step one of the process. There is still the first round of bargaining. There's the first collective agreement. There is enforcing the rights we get as in the collective agreement,” said Connolly as they explained the reasons they continue being part of CUPE 2278.

Connolly makes time to hold one-on-one conversations with people, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the ins-and-out about unionizing.

One key fact Connolly stresses in their conversations is privacy to address concerns about the power dynamic between graduate students and supervisors.

“Signing a card is private … that information doesn't go back to your supervisor. There are also rules around retaliation for unionizing.”

Getting eligible people to sign cards is the first step to unionize. In BC, if a union gets between 45 and 55 per cent of eligible union members to sign a membership card, the union can hold a unionization vote. If 55 per cent of eligible members sign, the union is automatically certified.

Ultimately, Connolly said CUPE 2278 is a collective organization that aims to improve the experiences of all members.

“We form unions, and we organize and we get together to make things better for ourselves,” said Connolly. ”We want to do things that bring people up.”

“There's still a lot of work to do.”