celebrating the evolution of nursing regulation in british columbia 100 Years of Nursing Regulation 1912 - 2012

LABOUR RELATIONS

Early nursing was hard work (certainly no different today) and often dangerous. It carried with it the stigma of low wages and relatively low status. Student nurses were worked to the bone and, when they graduated, left hospitals to find positions in private practice.

The first steps in elevating the status and compensation of nurses were registration and standards for nursing education, both important for demonstrating that registered nurses were trained and qualified professionals. But there was still a sense that these women were pursuing a calling and not a career.

Nurses began talking about shorter working hours in 1919, shortly after the Registered Nurses Act was passed, and at a time when the typical nurse was working 12 hours and more a day, six-and-a-half days a week.

In 1930, nurses finally achieved the 10-hour workday. The Canadian Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the federal New Democratic Party) championed the nurses’ cause, repeatedly pressing provincial governments to introduce the 48-hour workweek. In 1937, the government appointed a committee to examine labour conditions in B.C.’s hospitals. Among its recommendations, the committee recommended an eight-hour workday and 96-hour fortnight for nurses. The recommendations were never acted upon.

In 1946, with the Great Depression and the Second World War finally over, nurses’ compensation had fallen behind women’s salaries in many other occupations. RNABC stepped up to accept responsibility for bargaining on behalf of its members, becoming the first nurses’ association in Canada to assist nurses in becoming unionized province-wide. A Charter of Rights for Nurses was established as well as a Labour Relations Committee.

In 1951, Evelyn Hood was appointed the Association’s first full-time labour relations officer and collective bargaining for nurses came of age. Stretching its growing labour relations muscles, RNABC recommended strike action to its members after negotiations broke down between the Association and the hospitals in 1957. Strike votes were taken at three hospitals, but the B.C. government backed down at the eleventh hour and the strike was averted.

In 1959, eight B.C. hospitals again rejected a conciliation board report. After repeated refusals from government to meet, RNABC sent a letter stressing that nurses were prepared to strike because they “resented being used by hospitals to fight financial difficulties.” The government provided the necessary funding just before the strike was to begin.

In 1976, an autonomous independently-funded labour relations division was created following a Supreme Court ruling that a nursing body could not be both a regulatory body for all nurses and the bargaining agent for staff nurses. The division ended all financial dependence on the Association and relied on income from dues paid by members through salary deductions to ensure there could be no question of management influence on labour relations activities, and no hint of conflict between nurses’ economic and professional interests.

In 1980, a legal separation of the Association and the labour relations division was approved by RNABC and the Labour Relations Council of B.C., and the functionally-independent B.C. Nurses Union was founded.