1988 Nurses defy law with province-wide strike

In the fall of 1987 hospital employers, well-aware that nurses now had no legal right to strike, tabled massive rollbacks and takeaways going in to bargaining After reporting to the membership, the UNA organized a vote on the employers' last offer for January 22nd with the ballot reading, "Are you willing to go on strike for an improved offer?" not forgetting that strikes for hospital workers had been declared illegal by Bill 44. Legal wrangling resulted and the Labour Relations Board the UNA not to proceed with the vote (at three o'clock in the morning), as even the strike question on the ballot would be considered a strike threat and illegal. Nurses were outraged when they were told they could not even hold a vote on a strike. UNA went ahead with the vote at seven a.m. the next morning and nurses voted overwhelmingly and served notice that the illegal strike would begin on January 25th.

The strike did indeed begin--involving ninety-eight hospitals and fourteen thousand nurses and including the three Crown hospitals which never had had the right to strike, so were now in the same boat as the others.

Legal action began immediately and the Labour Relations Board issued a cease and desist order, and then filed its rulings on "threatening to strike" and "causing a strike" with the Courts. This process of filing LRB orders with the Courts, where they were automatically stamped as court orders, opened the way for later charges of contempt of Court. Contempt of court proceedings against both the UNA and individual nurses were begun shortly thereafter.

As early as January 25, 1988, some employers applied to the LRB for the right to cease the collection of union dues for six months-a request granted by the LRB.

Unions from across Canada began sending telegrams and letters of support, and followed shortly afterward with cheques. Mr. Dave Werlin, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, supported the striking nurses and promised that "Alberta workers would not let UNA go under financially".

On January 26, 1988, a permanent court injunction against picketing at the three Crown hospitals was granted by the Courts. Over 1,000 nurses responded by picketing those hospitals.

On January 27, 1988, individual nurses began to be served with civil contempt of Court charges. By the end of the strike over 75 such individual charges would be laid and heard. Nurses were also threatened with graduated discipline, up to and including termination.

The government charged UNA with criminal contempt of court. The government requested a $1 million fine and sequestration (seizure) of all the union's assets. On February 9, UNA paid the first criminal contempt fine. At the end of the strike, including all the individual fines UNA paid nearly half a million dollars in fines, the largest fines every paid by a union in Canada. Unions and individuals from across the country supported the nurses courageous stand and generous solidarity contributions paid most of the huge fine bills.

UNA appealed the contempt fines all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, but finally the appeal was turned down.

High-pressure negotiations also continued even as the judges were leveling fines. A settlement was reached and UNA took it to the striking nurses. On February 12th, UNA members accepted the employers' improved offer and the settlement was reached. The nurses returned to work the next day February 13th, after an 18 day strike. The settlement was termed a "tread water" deal, the employers rollbacks and takeaways were dropped, but the nurses had not made significant gains. The benefits were reaped in the 1990 round of negotiations when employers showed a much greated respect for nurses and the negotiation process.

Spacer Watch Clip