Collective agreements, 7:45 hour work days, grievance and arbitration, holidays, good wages, pensions and having a personal life. These are things today’s nurses often take for granted. Of course,
these standards are a recent development in nursing. All of us are aware of our profession’s history that is marked with abysmal pay and poor working conditions.
The motto for the first nursing school in Canada was: “I see and I am silent”. This motto reflected the working environment of nurses from that era. We have come a long way.
Do you think labour disputes are a recent development in nursing? Think again. The first labour dispute in Canada dates back to 1878 in Montreal. The issue was working conditions. The nurses threatened to withdraw and return to England. In 1944, because of World War II, Manitoba was suffering a nursing shortage so a resolution was passed supporting collective bargaining with conditions that included an anti-strike policy.
In 1948, as an alternative to unions, Manitoba Association of Registered Nurses (MARN, now known as CRNM) was involved in labour relations committees and pressed for standardization of working hours and released the first of a series of reports on recruitment and retention issues. The average industry work-week was 40 hours. In contrast, however, at least two Manitoba hospitals reported a nursing work-week of 66 to 90 hours. MARN recommended that nurses be “better intruded to community life” and that living conditions be given “some consideration”. Wages increased by 16% but were still among the lowest in Canada and with time, the nursing shortage intensified. Pension plans were recommended but not taken seriously. All recommendations were voluntary. Working conditions did not change.
The first Manitoba nurses to work under the protection of a collective agreement were employed by the City of Winnipeg in the Municipal Hospitals and as Public Health Nurses. In 1953, they discovered they were union members when they were included in the automatic dues check-off negotiated by the Federation of Civic Employees which would later become the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). In 1963, MARN lobbied the government to exclude nurses from union membership.
Among the nurses, there was a growing dissatisfaction that CUPE was unable to meet the needs of the nurses. At the time, CUPE represented all City employees. After a group of nurses went to a union meeting, their surprise turned to shock and anger after they overheard a man behind them say, “whatever they propose, reject it… we’re going on strike”. The nurses wanted out of this union but did not want to lose their union rights. They wanted a separate nurses’ union. It was then that nurses united and secretly organized meetings in basements of various nurses’ homes. They hired a lawyer to handle the certification of a new bargaining unit and to negotiate a collective agreement. One nurse’s husband offered to front the $3,000 cost, but true to the spirit of our nurses, the offer was refused. Instead, the nurses procured a loan. The loan was eventually paid off by every nurse paying one dollar each month. The vote was passed with just 65% of the nurses voting in favour of the union.
To complete the process, they needed proof that an association had been formed. So, they signed up members and sent the receipts to be scrutinized. Unfortunately, an unsealed envelope dropped and spilled its contents on the mailroom floor. Each receipt had to be accounted for. Despite this jinx, the proof was established, and on May 6, 1975 certificate #1003 stated that the Winnipeg Civic Nurses Association (WCNA) was born.
Our local was the first in Manitoba, and started a wave of unionization of nurses. Initially, we negotiated and bargained local by local but later were united after the Provincial Nurses Council, once a part of MARN, separated and became Manitoba Organization of Nurses’ Associations (MONA) in 1985. The name was officially changed to Manitoba Nurses’ Union (MNU) in 1990, and the WCNA became Local 1 of the MNU.
In 1994, after the Municipal Hospitals separated from the City of Winnipeg, the WCNA also separated into two locals. The Public Health Nurses kept the Local 1 designation, and the Riverview Health Centre Nurses became Local 1a.
Our history is more than just stories of struggles and proud achievements. We see that nurses are creative and together we can face challenges and overcome them. We can successfully care for patients and provide quality health care, while at the same time, fight for fair wages, benefits, and pensions. The knowledge of our past gives us an awareness of the need to continue to move forward.