SNAA: The story of the nurses’ union at the University of
By the 1970s, nurses at nearly every hospital in Alberta had their
own Staff Nurses Association. The associations worked with local
management on many issues but wages were negotiated centrally through
the professional association, the Alberta Association of Registered
Nurses (AARN). In 1977, nurses voted for a change and to make the negotiating
function separate from the professional AARN function. Many of the
nurse associations banded together and formed United Nurses of Alberta
to bargain together but the nurses at the University of Alberta Hospital,
one of the largest in the province, chose to be independent and bargain
through their own association.
Initially, however, the nurses were informed they could not form a
legal bargaining unit under the Public Service Employees Relations
Act (PSERA). It was not until 1979, that the Staff Nurses Association
actually became a legal bargaining agent, after the government had
made changes to PSERA.
The Staff Nurses Association negotiated agreements with the University
Hospital in 1979, 1982 and in 1984. Issues that they could not resolve
through negotiations went to binding arbitration. In the 1986-87 agreement,
the nurses won a professional responsibility clause to allow them a
voice in safe conditions for patients.
The Association had contacts with nursing unions outside Alberta;
and in 1985, nurses at the University of Alberta Hospital became the
first ones in Alberta to join the National Federation of Nurses Unions
(later to become the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions).
In 1986, nurses at the Alberta Cancer Board (including the Cross Cancer
Institute, which was closely associated with University Hospital, and
the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary) voted to join the Staff Nurses
Association rather than UNA.
After the Cancer Board nurses joined, the association changed its
name to reflect its new members and became the Staff Nurses Associations
of Alberta (SNAA).
In 1986, UNA member nurses at several health units were forced out
on a bitter ten-month strike/lock out. Nurses at some of the health
units declined to strike, and over time joined SNAA. Nurses at several
additional rural health units across the province also joined SNAA
over the next few years.
SNAA never undertook strike action in their collective bargaining. But,
SNAA always supported the UNA strike actions and many SNAA nurses would
join the picket line and wear UNA’s “We are worth it!” buttons. Some
SNAA nurses even worked overtime to donate money to the UNA strike
fund. During the UNA strikes, the SNAA facilities became a kind of
safety valve in the strike process, and the most ill patients were
transferred to SNAA hospitals.
In 1988, United Nurses of Alberta went on the historic 19-day illegal
strike. The University Hospital was quickly inundated with transferred
patients and was under tremendous pressure. According to SNAA President
Barb LeBlanc it resembled, “one huge intensive care unit.”
At the same time SNAA was also in contract talks, which were at an
impasse with no new agreement in sight. The SNAA nurses again showed
strong solidarity for their striking UNA colleagues. They joined in
on UNA picket lines, and some said the nurses were acting on behalf
of all the nurses in the province.
On February 2nd, while UNA was still on strike, the SNAA had a reporting
meeting to decide what to do to bring about a resolution to their bargaining
impasse. They decided to ask for a meeting with provincial Premier
Don Getty and, at the same time, to donate $25,000 to UNA. At first,
Don Getty’s office declined a meeting. But SNAA Executive
Director, Louise Rogers, asked the Premier’s office, “Do
you want me to tell hundreds of nurses who are not on strike that the
Premier refuses to speak with them?”
The nurses met twice with Premier Getty and the Labour Minister, and
the government offered SNAA a settlement. On February 9th, the members
voted to accept it. It was not until February 12th that UNA members
voted to accept an offer and ended their strike.
The SNAA had an illustrious history, but by the late 1990s it became
clear that the health employers could use the existence of the two
separate nurses’ unions to their advantage in collective bargaining. The
crunch came in 1997 when it appeared that the government and Labour
Relations Board were poised to create a “turf war” between
the two organizations. Capital Health applied for a single certificate
for all RNs at the Royal Alexandra, University of Alberta and Glenrose
Hospitals, a move that would have forced nurses to choose between the
two organizations in a vote.
There had been initiatives to explore combining UNA and SNAA before,
but in 1997 the leaders of the two organizations got together, determined
to avoid a divisive struggle. The leaderships agreed on an amalgamation
plan which was strongly supported by both a vote of SNAA members and
of a special delegate meeting of UNA. On October 15th, the two organizations
combined under the UNA name and effectively created one nurses’ union
for almost all the Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses
in the province.