From its humble beginnings, to one of Saskatchewan's largest unions, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses' (SUN) first twenty-five years have been filled with adversity, hard work and many accomplishments.
Although the use of collective bargaining as a means to improving wages and working conditions for nurses had been endorsed by the Canadian Nurses' Association (CNA) since the mid 1940s, nurses in Saskatchewan were hesitant to form a union because of the "Florence Nightingale mentality" which had long been ingrained in the heart of the nursing profession. Growing pressure to join unions representing other hospital staff and the ever-widening gap in salaries and benefits between nursing and other professions finally incited nurses to form their own bargaining agent.
SUN was officially born on January 19, 1974, although much of the groundwork had been lain by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses' Association (SRNA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A Supreme Court decision which ruled that the SRNA could not effectively represent the average nurse due to its primary composition of nurses in management positions was the final impetus for SUN's official formation.
Pressed by upcoming negotiations for a new contract, a group of Staff Nurses' Associations (SNAs) from Saskatoon took the initiative to form the Nurses' Provincial Negotiating Committee and the Provincial Steering Committee on Collective Bargaining for Nurses to study nurses’ alternatives for maintaining their autonomy.
On January 19, 1974, at a meeting to discuss the Steering Committee's report, 89 nurses from 43 SNAs and other nurses' groups voted unanimously to approve a motion to "form a labour organization to represent nurses in Saskatchewan."
SUN's first Board of Directors consisted of a President, Mary Parchewsky, two Vice-Presidents (Hospital and Nursing Home sectors), a Secretary-Treasurer, eight Regional Representatives and a full-time Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Its first office was in the basement of CEO Al Shalansky, who lived in Regina.
Since then, SUN's Regina office has relocated a number of times and since 1991 has resided in it's own building at 2330 2nd Avenue. In 1977 they opened a second office in Saskatoon, which has also undergone numerous relocations and is now located at 103 310 Idlywyld Drive North.
By the end of its' first year, SUN had hired a Secretary and in 1975, hired its first Employee Relations Officer (ERO). The next major change to SUN's staff structure came in 1982 when Shalansky was asked to resign as CEO. Soon after, SUN created an Executive Director position and elected its first full-time paid president, June Blau.
Today, SUN's Board of Directors is comprised of a President, four Vice-Presidents (Finance, Acute Care, Long Term Care and Community sectors) and seven Regional Representatives. Other paid staff include an Executive Director, Employee Relations Officers and various administrative staff.
Since SUN's inception, committees have played an integral role in SUN. Over the years, some of the different committees have been: Constitution, Bylaws and Resolutions; Education; Negotiations; Nominations; Program; and Public Relations and Communications. The responsibilities of the committees are as wide and varied as their names suggest.
By the end of its first year, SUN was the official bargaining agent for nurses in 76 hospitals and 5 nursing homes. Including units where SUN was not yet certified, but represented nurses through signed agreements, membership totaled approximately 2,500.
Throughout the years, these numbers grew steadily and by 1997, membership totaled more than 6,700. Then, in 1998 when the Dorsey Commission ruled that SUN should represent all registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and graduate nurses employed by health districts and their affiliates, SUN's numbers have swelled to nearly 8,500.
SUN's annual meeting has always been the ideal time for all SUN members to make their voices heard. Decisions range from electing board and committee members to amending the constitution, from choosing collective bargaining demands to making resolutions on safe patient care. Of course, business isn't the only thing going on at the annual meeting. Guest speakers, fashion shows, skits, songs, sharing stories with colleagues and having a good time are also important.
One key decision made at SUN's annual meeting was in 1978 when the importance of educating members was officially recognized. Members recognized that more nurses needed to be educated in the fields of public and labour relations, bargaining and negotiations. Member education was recognized as a "cornerstone of union activities" essential not only to ensuring "a steady supply of potential leaders for both local and provincial levels" but enabling a larger number of union members to be active and knowledgeable.
SUN's Labour Schools, taught at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, cover topics such as: contract interpretation, labour relations, the law and collective bargaining, grievances and arbitration, negotiations, and professional accountability. These labour schools have always received the highest praise from their participants. In 1984, one enthusiastic student remarked "You meet a lot of very talented people at the school, all of them leaders, or future leaders for SUN. You can't help but leave the school feeling a bit stronger as a union member. For me, that feeling gets translated into a desire to become more active in SUN."
SUN also educates its members by holding seminars which address issues such as conflict resolution, contract interpretation, local administration, leadership, union-management relations, resolution of nursing practice issues and collective bargaining. Members can easily keep up-to-date by reading SUNSPOTS, SUN's monthly newsletter.
Wouldn't it be nice if health care employers and the government saw the value in keeping nurses up-to-date? For years, nurses have had difficulty getting the training they need to operate new equipment and upgrade their skills.
Since 1974, SUN has sought to effect social change beneficial not only to its members, but to society as whole, by affiliating on a provincial and national level with other professional and labour organizations.
In 1976 SUN began to participate in biannual meetings with the collective bargaining departments of other provincial nursing unions to promote communication between sister organizations and to educate staff members.
In 1981, with SUN as a founding member, the National Federation of Nurses Unions was formed. The NFNU represented 80,000 nurses nationwide and provided a voice on national issues for Canadian nurses. (The NFNU is currently known as the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU))
In 1992, however, SUN withdrew from the NFNU because a number of Canadian Nurses Unions (BCNU, UNA, ONA, NSNU and the Quebec Nurses' Union) remained outside the organization and SUN felt this hampered the NFNU's ability to be a truly "national voice" for nurses.
In 1996 SUN affiliated with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) and immediately gained a stronger voice. For example, the policy on health reform, passed at the SUN 1996 annual meeting, was submitted as a resolution to the 1996 SFL convention and adopted by the delegates as the SFL policy on health reform. The health reform policy was now endorsed by 70,000 unionized workers in Saskatchewan rather than just 8,000 nurses.
In 1997, SUN achieved an effective and powerful national voice by becoming a member of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Soon after, MNU and BCNU followed suit. With three nurse unions affiliated with the CLC, President Bob White said a national nursing body must be created. SUN won the opportunity to form a new national nurses' organization to meet the need that all nurse unions have for federal influence.
The restructuring of health care across the country has made the formation of a national organization of nurses' unions imperative. Also, federal issues such as transfer payments, trade agreements and restructuring of social benefits have made it equally imperative that SUN have a voice in the broader labour movement. Through affiliation with the SFL and the CLC, SUN is in a strong position to fight for the rights of nurses on a provincial and national level.
Since many of their goals involve the general population, garnering public support has long been important to SUN. SUN has run many billboard, button, newspaper and radio campaigns. SUN has also distributed pamphlets, sponsored television programs, run blood pressure clinics, held rallies, informational picket lines and all-candidate forums for candidates in provincial elections, and staged various events during Nurses' Week.
Tear-away portions from brochures, petitions and the Health Hotline have helped the Saskatchewan people communicate their health care concerns to the government. In 1986, 30,000 families who signed SUN's "Code 99" cards set a record for the largest mailing ever delivered to the government.
Some of the slogans SUN has used include:
- Overworked + Undervalued = Nursing Shortage
- Keep the care in health care
- Is Health Care in Crisis?
- Ask a registered nurse
- Nurses Care
- Staff for Safe Patient Care-SUN's #1 Priority
- Stand Up for Nursing
- The Squeeze on Nurses Hurts Us All
Over the years, SUN has definitely developed a knack for getting the media's attention. SUN's organizational structure and service departments all exist to help nurses fight for their rights. And it is in this arena that SUN has made its greatest achievements. Through the process of collective bargaining SUN has been able to dramatically improve the wages and working conditions of its members.
When necessary, SUN members have not shrunk from taking strike votes and strike action to protect their rights and win better working conditions for all nurses. The 1974 walkout and the 1976 strike shattered the image of nurses as being docile, and won them wage increases and new rights.
In the first 10 years SUN protected nurses from such unfair practices as disciplinary actions without cause and working unscheduled shifts at regular pay. SUN also prevented management from refusing to grant pressing necessity leave. The Union worked to overturn unfair performance evaluations, broaden the definition of responsibility pay and insure there was proper allocation of unemployment insurance rebates.
In 1988 SUN members went on strike and successfully protected their right to speak out about patient care issues and achieved the Independent Assessment Committee.
In 1989 the issue of equality between hospital and nursing home nurses came to the fore. In April 1989 SUN members voted in favour of strike action. By June, SUN was able to conclude collective agreements with SHA, Extendicare and SASCH that guaranteed equality amongst nursing home nurses and with acute care nurses. This represented a major achievement for SUN and its members in the nursing home sector.
In May, 1991 SUN members again went out on strike and won improvements in the areas of layoff and recall provisions, preferential hiring, shift scheduling and representation on SHA's pension committee.
By 1998 nurses faced the problems of pay inequity (with other professions and with nurses in other provinces) and a chronic nursing shortage. In December, 1998 SUN members gave the Bargaining Committee a strike mandate to fight for their rights.
The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses might have come into being in 1974 to fight for the rights of nurses through the collective bargaining process, but it soon became much more than that. From 1974 on, health care cuts began to affect the quality of patient care nurses were able to provide.
SUN felt compelled to take action to protect the rights of patients everywhere. In December, 1980 SUNSPOTS announced the commencement of a Documentation Program pilot project at St. Paul's Hospital. The SUN statement that introduced this program said "..the situation has become so acute that nurses acknowledge that the responsibility of employment and professional standards are in conflict. The employee has the right and the duty to protest, identify and document the conflict."
In 1982 a Nursing Advisory Committee clause was introduced into the collective agreement. This permitted nurses to raise workload issues at local Nursing Advisory Committee meetings, but didn't provide a vehicle for resolving contentious issues.
By November of 1985 the results of the Documentation Program were clearly indicating there was a serious problem with understaffing in Saskatchewan, and that patients were being placed in dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. Staffing for safe and proper care was set as one of SUN's top bargaining priorities for the 1986 contract.
SUN continued to activate Nursing Advisory Committees at hospitals throughout the province. By April of 1986 nurses' concerns over understaffing and levels of patient care prompted SUN to take public action. On April 17th, 1986, 300 members of SUN presented petitions and Code 99 cards about levels of patient care to the legislature.
In 1987 SUN set up a Health Hotline to allow members of the public to report any incidents of unsafe patient care they or their relatives experienced.
In 1988, during contract negotiations, SAHO put forward a proposal to modify confidentiality within the Nursing Advisory to prevent nurses from going public with understaffing issues - SAHO wanted all issues to go no further than the hospital board. Paul Kuling said of this proposal, "The intent is to muzzle nurses and to prevent the public from knowing when safe patient care is in jeopardy." In October the nurses went out on strike and after seven days SAHO accepted SUN's proposal about the formation of Independent Assessment Committees.
Since that time many incidents of unsafe levels of patient care have been resolved by Independent Assessment Committees, but the fight was not over.
By 1992 Saskatchewan was witnessing a restructuring of the Health Care System. At first SUN was open to genuine reform, but it soon became apparent that the government's "wellness" initiative seemed to really mean facility closures, health care cuts and massive layoffs of nurses.
In July, 1995 Judy Junor told nurses, "Understaffing has reached critical levels and it is time for nurses to blow the whistle to help ensure the safety of their patients." Accordingly, in November of 1995 SUN started the "Stop the Silence Campaign" and provided all nurses with a form to fill out, documenting their working conditions and levels of staffing. In February, 1996 the results of the "Stop the Silence" survey revealed that in Saskatchewan there was "inadequate baseline staffing to provide safe and proper patient care."
By the end of 1998 the provincial government admitted there was a chronic shortage of nurses in Saskatchewan. SUN was fighting to keep nurses in the profession and to maintain adequate staffing levels and a consistent quality of patient care. Nurses were leaving the profession because they were overworked, underpaid and undervalued. SUN argued if these issues were not addressed in the 1999 contract, there would be fewer nurses than ever, and levels of patient care would suffer accordingly.
In December 1998, 74% of SUN members, sickened by pay inequity, forced overtime and deteriorating working conditions, voted in favour of strike action. This was the first time in SUN's history that a strike vote had taken place before negotiations even began. Once again nurses were fighting for their rights, and at the same time fighting to protect their patients and the health care system as a whole.
In 2001, SUN members can look back on the history of their organization with great pride. Much has been achieved on behalf of nurses and patients and SUN is a strong organization with a voice in provincial and national affairs. But there are still battles ahead. Looking back at our history, we can feel confident of success.