1988 Nurses’ Strike in Alberta – A Case Study
By Natalie Zacharewski
Natalie is a museum education professional based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a passion for creating learning opportunities for students of all ages through immersive, inquiry-based experiences. She has worked in museums and heritage institutions across Canada and the United States such as Museums of Burlington, the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum and Colonial Williamsburg. She has held the role of Faculty Instructor for the Public Programs course in the Certificate in Museum Studies Program with the Alberta Museums Association. She has also worked with the British Columbia Museums Association as Museum Education Consultant, assisting small museums develop educational programs. Natalie holds a Master of Arts in History from the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian, American and gender history.
In this case study, learners will explore the 1988 Nurses’ Strike in Alberta.
Under the themes of State Intervention in Labour Conflicts and Public Health and Safety, students will use curatorial thinking to make connections with conversations surrounding labour movements across national and international lines.
The Nine Hour Movement and the adoption of the Trade Unions Act 1872 will provide a framework for examining labour events across Canadian history.
In this case study, learners will explore the 1988 Nurses’ Strike in Alberta. Under the themes of state intervention in labour conflicts and public health and safety, students will use curatorial thinking to make connections with conversations surrounding labour movements across national and international lines.
- State Intervention in Labour Conflicts
- Public Health and Safety
Case Study Overview
“The government can make all the laws they want, but they can’t stop people from going on strike… You could get the army out and march them to work, but can you make them work? No. You can threaten people. Maybe you can threaten to kill somebody if they didn’t work. But if they accepted the threat and said, fine shoot me, you still can’t make them work.”
—Margaret Ethier, president, United Nurses of Alberta, 1980–1988
On January 25, 1988, over 14,000 nurses across Alberta walked off the job. Contract negotiations had failed surrounding wage increases, among other demands. This strike affected 133 hospitals and nursing homes, save the University of Alberta Hospital, where the nurses were part of a different union. This would be the last province-wide strike the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) would initiate.
What complicates this particular strike is that it was illegal. In 1983, Premier Peter Lougheed’s government passed Bill 44, making it illegal for hospital employees, including nurses, to strike. When the government of Lougheed’s successor, Don Getty, met the UNA for contract negotiations in 1987, strike action was prohibited. Throughout these prolonged negotiations, each party regarded the subject of rollbacks differently: the UNA held a policy to not give in to rollbacks, and the government saw the UNA in a weaker position at the bargaining table.
In January 1988, during a UNA meeting, many nurses expressed their dissatisfaction with the government offer on the negotiating table. However, should they decide to strike, it would be an illegal strike action. It was posed to their members:
“Are you willing to go on strike for an improved offer?”
Although the Labour Relations Board declared that even holding a strike vote was illegal, the vote was held on the morning of January 22, 1988. Bev Dick, who later served as UNA first vice-president, recalled that voting at Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital took place in a motorhome outside (past votes that were deemed legal were held inside).
On January 27, acting Attorney General Elaine McCoy charged UNA with criminal contempt of court. Going even further, nurses began to be served with civil contempt of court charges individually. By the time the strike was over, over 75 individual charges would be brought forth.
On January 29, UNA was served with notice to appear at a criminal contempt hearing the next day. The demands from the provincial government included a $1-million fine, along with the seizure of the union’s funds and assets. By February 4, a court found UNA guilty of criminal contempt of court and fined it $250,000, to be paid within five days. If the nurses did not return to work immediately, they faced discipline, and even termination. Nurses insisted they would walk the picket lines until they secured a collective agreement that they negotiated and was fair. The union paid the criminal contempt fine on February 9. While they were at the courthouse at this exact time, they were served with a notice of motion of a second criminal contempt charge.
On Friday, February 12, 82% of nurses voted to accept a better offer and return to work. Although the efficacy of the strike can be debated, many saw it as a success, as no rollbacks were achieved. This had a positive impact on contract negotiations for nurses into the next decade. In the end, UNA was fined $426,750 as a result of the strike. In order to help pay the amount, donations were given by other unions.
By the time the Winter Olympic Games in Calagary began on February 13, Edmonton’s hospital emergency departments were open again except for the University of Alberta Hospital. Staff in this emergency department were given a three-week break after being the only fully operational hospital during the province-wide strike.
As a large class group, discuss these questions:
Does the state (local or federal governments) have the right to override a strike when public safety may be at risk?
Should essential workers (doctors, nurses, food providers, etc.) have different organizing regulations because of their essential status?
Imagine you had a job as an essential worker; what would it feel like to advocate for worker fairness, while also keeping in mind the important role you have?
Archival Photo Study
Study this photo, then respond to these questions:
What do you see in this photo?
How do rally signs convey the thoughts of the strikers?
Can you think of another time you saw rally signs? What did they say? Did they demonstrate the goals of those in the rally?
Connection to Current Event
1. Read this article or download as a PDF below:
2. In groups, discuss these questions and reflect on your responses in your journals:
How does this make you feel about health care workers in Canada?
Should mental health be more highly prioritized in worker benefits?
How do you think mental health strains affect care for frontline essential workers?
How Does This Relate to the Nine Hour Movement?
On April 18, 1872, the federal government of John A. Macdonald introduced the Trade Unions Act, Canada’s first labour law, which gave workers the legal right to associate in trade unions. Although it was a political manoeuvre against publisher George Brown in response to the print workers’ movement, this act set the stage for the Nine Hour Movement and the growth of unions in Canada.
The 1988 Nurses’ Strike in Alberta connects to the Trade Unions Act as it invoked a worker’s fundamental right to assembly to demand increased wages, work hours, and/or benefits. Despite the strike being deemed illegal by the provincial government, the nurses of Alberta fought for their right to assemble and for more fair contract negotiations.
Make a TikTok video
What do you think your audience should know about the 1988 Nurses’ Strike in Alberta? Tip: Look to your inquiry-based questions for inspiration.
Organize your speaking parts, visuals, transitions, and other direction for your video. Some themes to consider could be:
- State Intervention in Labour Conflicts
- Public Health & Safety
3. Perform and film!
What TikTok trends can you use to help present topic facts? This must be APPROPRIATE!
What effects might be considered?
What sounds could work with your video? Again, make sure they are APPROPRIATE!
Your video should be between 15 and 60 seconds long.
Add any filters, text, effects, or other items that will add quality to your video without taking away the educational value.
Feel free to include any relevant and creative hashtags in your video description.
When ready, post your video to TikTok —–OR—– Download the video to your device and email to your teacher.
Questions to Evaluate
- Are the topic and title of the video relevant (and appropriate) to the content and requirements? Does this topic provide a quality educational experience for the viewer?
- Does the video have educational and entertainment value?
- Does the video accurately portray the information from the written assignment?
- Are all audio and visual components clear, understandable, APPROPRIATE?
- Is the video of high quality?
- Is there a WWWWWH (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How)?
Cited project outline courtesy of:
Boxwell, Josephine. “Against the Law: The 1988 Nurses’ Strike,” City of Edmonton (May 11, 2021). https://citymuseumedmonton.ca/2021/05/11/against-the-law-the-1988-nurses-strike/.
Canadian Labour Congress. “Unions Become Legal in Canada (But Picketing Is Outlawed).” https://canadianlabour.ca/uncategorized/twlh-apr-3/#:~:text=On%20April%2018%2C%201872%2C%20the,to%20associate%20in%20trade%20unions.
Crocket, Moya. “‘We Let Rip’: The Messy History of the Nurses’ Strikes in 1988” in Huck magazine (November 23, 2021). https://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/the-messy-history-of-the-nurses-strikes-in-1988/.
Howse, John. “Alberta’s Defiant Nurses” in Maclean’s magazine (February 1988). https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1988/2/8/albertas-defiant-nurses.
United Nurses of Alberta. “Remembering Alberta’s 1988 Nurses Strike” (February 2013). https://www.una.ca/116/25-years-later-remembering-the-1988-nurses-strike.