SNAA: The story of the nurses’ union at the University of Alberta Hospital

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.

Spacer Alberta Alberta Alberta Alberta