Early Associations: 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 bargaining.

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.