Nurses organize to improve their working lives
In the early days of lay
nursing (as opposed to that of religious organizations), nurses worked on
a freelance basis, as "private duty nurses" usually in people's
homes. That meant they had to negotiate their own wages and working conditions
with individual families. Often that was difficult to do when nurses were faced
with particularly hard-up families, who could barely afford to eat, let alone
pay a nurse for her much needed care.
In 1916, the Alberta Association of Graduate Nurses became the Alberta Association
of Registered Nurses or AARN. Nurses formed their organization to provide some
sort of control over standards of nursing, and standards of training. In 1925,
the AARN took the unprecedented step of limiting nurses' working days to twelve
hours! Believe it or not, it had been twenty-four hours.
During the Depression,
because of the continuing difficulty of charging private families for nursing
care, hospitals, doctors and governments took the opportunity to offer nurses
an employment relationship with the hospitals. This proved to be quite a
change and a challenge for the nurses. Difficulties arose as the two sides
tried to sort out this new relationship, and labour management meetings were
held to sort things out--usually on an individual basis, without
the support of a collective group.
By 1941, a committee had
been established by the AARN to improve the working conditions of both students
and graduate nurses. It was called the Eight-Hour
Day Committee, an item that was an important part of their agenda. In 1944,
the newly formed Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) endorsed collective bargaining
for nurses, supporting the position that the professional associations should
act as bargaining agents. The AARN and the Alberta Hospital Association (AHA)
met to discuss a minimum salary scale, hours of duty, vacation, sick leave,
pensions and hospitalization.
The two groups continued
to meet to discuss such matters and the AHA would issue recommendations for
hospitals in respect to salaries and personnel policies--some
hospitals would follow them and some wouldn't. At the same time, there were
forty-four hour weeks and forty-eight hour weeks in different hospitals. Twenty
hospitals were actually still using split shifts.
Things shuddered along for several years and in 1961, in return for the government
promise to introduce a pension plan, the nurses accepted salary terms that
would see them fall behind both British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Under new
legislation (1966), the Staff Nurse Associations within individual hospitals
were allowed to be recognized as bargaining agents, although strike action
was illegal, and, up to that point, forbidden by the CNA. The Provincial
Staff Nurse Committee (PSNC) was formed within the AARN to take charge of collective
In the early
years of the seventies, the CNA lifted its ban on nurses' strikes and the AARN
followed suit. When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Saskatchewan Association
of Registered Nurses was ineligible as a bargaining agent (because of the inclusion
of traditional management positions), the way was paved for the establishment
of independent labour unions for nurses.