20 years ago nurses in Saskatchewan wildcatted. Could the same happen today?

20 years ago this month, in April 1999, nurses in Saskatchewan engaged in a ten-day “wildcat” (illegal) strike. Around 8,000 members of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) walked off the job, and refused to return even after being legislated back to work by an allegedly labor-friendly New Democratic Party government under Roy Romanow.

Nurses struck because they were severely overworked, frequently pulling double shifts through forced overtime, and working long stretches without a day off. For years, the province had been understaffing and underpaying nurses, and as a result, many were leaving the province for employment opportunities in the United States, or leaving the profession altogether. The staffing shortages not only affected nurses’ health and wellbeing, but threatened patient care. When nurses tried to use existing mechanisms to petition for more staff, hospitals would simply ignore the recommendations.

I first heard about the strike from a friend of my mother’s, Cathy Zuck, who worked as legal counsel for the union at the time. She described these “orthopedic-shoe-wearing, law-abiding, middle-aged women” suddenly pulling off a very militant labor action, and outmaneuvering the government at every turn. When Romanow legislated them back to work, nurses simply ignored the law. When the government paraded patients in front of news cameras to fly them elsewhere for care, nurses ensured essential services were covered in the province and that public sympathy stayed on their side. When the union was fined for being in contempt of court with the strike, SUN ensured that money was spent on grants for nurses’ education.

I interviewed Rosalee Longmoore, then-President of SUN, and Donna Ottenson, then-Chair of the bargaining committee (now Employment Relations Officer). They talked about how the strike was built, what it achieved, and why they unfortunately don’t see such a thing happening today.

Although they were interviewed separately, I have spliced their interviews together for the sake of narrative.

Let me start with a general question. People often wonder how nurses can strike effectively – how they can inflict pressure on the employer while also making sure patients don’t suffer. Can you speak to how SUN handled that?

Rosalee Longmoore: As long as nurses have been unionized, when we have gone on strike, we have always had very extensive essential services plans, made at the local level, and managed provincially as well.

In a very small facility, it might be something like, “here’s a number where you call us if you need help.” If there’s normally only one nurse on a day shift, management (a management nurse) can handle that. In those cases, the plan is basically, “In the event of some sort of disaster, if you need help, here’s a number.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are very extensive and complicated plans in large tertiary care centers, where there is life-and-death surgery going on, and neonatal and intensive care units.

My own best experience was in 1988, because I was in charge of essential services. I had a baby on September 1, and on September 8 I was in Saskatoon on a strike steering committee. We went on strike at Thanksgiving. We just moved the baby’s bassinet into the office. And so I was on call for nurses at the local level that were managing the essential services. And there were lots of complex issues we dealt with, where nurses were being asked by management to come in, and they would check with us. And we would always ask, “If you don’t go in, who is there that could provide the service?” and we would identify someone else who could provide the service.

Donna Ottenson: There were always nurses, especially in the acute areas and the big facilities, they were there on standby and would do walkthroughs in the large facilities. Decisions were made all the time: if they felt one of the acute units was getting really overrun, they would bring in more staff there. If they thought the managers were just getting bagged, they would go, “look, we’re going to come in for 12 hours.”

RL: In 1999, what changed was, we [SUN] now represented many more nurses, who would previously have been accessible to employers if they wanted to redirect them. For example: public health nurses in Regina. The employer in previous years could have suspended immunization and redirected those nurses to go work somewhere.

So this put additional pressure on the employer.

RL: Yes. And even though we had essential services plans, as we always did, the employer started, for example, flying moms with high-risk pregnancies out to places like Calgary, rather than keeping them here and letting our members go in, as we would have done, to look after them. They made a big public display of this, shoving the pregnant mama across the runway in front of TV cameras.

Those kinds of games, they played.

DO: I don’t think that played out as well with the public as the government thought it would.

Why was it illegal for nurses to be striking?

RL: By law we had to serve 48 hours’ notice. We served strike notice on April 5, so we could have walked out April 7. The morning of the 7th, the Premier [of Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow] sent a letter to the employer, SAHO (Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations) and us, requesting that we come to the legislature and meet with him.

We had to really work on our bargaining committee to get them to let us go, because one time we had been bargaining up in Saskatoon, and suddenly we got a call from the Minister of Health, Pat Atkinson, that they urgently needed to speak with us. So our Executive Director Bev Crossman and I flew back to Regina to meet with her, and it achieved nothing. And in our committee’s view, it just stalled the inevitable.

But we eventually convinced them [our bargaining committee], saying, “Think of the publicity, because Romanow will go public and say he invited us to come and talk to him, we could have resolved it, and instead we ignored the invitation and walked out.” So we went, and we spent an entire day in his office with nothing achieved. He heard from us what our side of things was, and he heard from SAHO what their side was, and then we were kept in separate rooms all day. They brought us lunch, they brought us supper, and then they said they weren’t going to have an answer, they told us to come back at 9 o’clock the next morning. So Bev and I went and reported to the bargaining committee and they said, “That’s it.”

And our members too were getting frustrated. So I had Romanow’s number, and I phoned him and I said, “Our members are going to walk off the job tomorrow morning, but I have every intention of being in your office at 9:00 AM to resolve this.” And he never responded to that message, and instead, in the middle of the night, he recalled the legislature for first thing in the morning.

So we walked off the job in the morning. I walked the picket line at the General Hospital for a while, and then went and sat in the legislature and watched them legislate us back to work.

That’s when the whole wildcatness of it started.

DO: It was like, “Wow, are we really going to do this?” But we had a lot of confidence that it was the right thing to do, in part because of Rosalee’s leadership.

Some reporter from Toronto got in touch with Rosalee and said, “What is going on here? You’re these middle-aged women and you’re on an illegal strike.” So it was a very unusual situation.

Nurses sometimes have a harder time being trade unionists than being nurses. Professional responsibility, patient safety, advocacy — that’s always been a priority for them. But I think a lot of it [the strike] was the professional side of it. I don’t think nurses would have done that just for bettering their own working conditions. It was also about things like safe patient care. And I don’t think the government took it seriously that our bargaining priorities were as important to us as they were.

Nurses pile shoes on the steps of the provincial legislature to represent colleagues who have left the province due to overwork and unfair conditions | Image courtesy of Donna Ottenson

RL: The anger and frustration of nurses had been building since 1991, when there was a reorganization of health care. Some facilities closed, some were made into something other than hospitals, and nurses (and other health care providers) bore the brunt of that reorganization. They would get laid off, or they would have to drive further to work, or they would be doing a different kind of nursing. So this reorganization felt like it was being done to them.

That’s why it was so hard to hold nurses back.

So we defied the legislation. We had a big rally in front of the legislature, and then moved over to the Center of the Arts, and basically I said, “Nurses made the decision individually to walk off the job, and nurses individually would decide whether or not they would stay off the job.” I was not going to ask nurses to return to work.

And everybody stayed out. Like, locals that historically would never vote to go out on strike, because it’s hard in a small community, they stayed off the job. They could have gone back to work and they stayed out.

On the Saturday, they had us in court to get an injunction to stop the strike. And I said the same thing: nurses had individually decided to defy the legislation, and I would not be asking them to return to work.

So then we became in contempt of the court.

They wouldn’t talk to us, because we were in an “illegal” strike, so they would only use their lawyer to talk to our lawyer, so it took this whole back-and-forth all week to finally get to a spot where there was a framework, where they would commit to certain things, and we would [as well].

We signed that on a Saturday night, between SAHO and SUN. We showed up in Romanow’s office on Sunday morning. And then we told folks they could go back to work.

But we still didn’t have a collective agreement. So then we started bargaining. I think it was July 1 we got our agreement.

Nurses pile shoes on the steps of the provincial legislature to represent colleagues who have left the province due to overwork and unfair conditions | Image courtesy of Donna Ottenson

How did the public perceive the strike?

DO: I do believe the public has a high regard for nurses; they place a lot of trust in nurses, and they believed that if nurses felt we had to do that, we had to do that.

Our first rally was totally spontaneous. I’m sure we had three thousand people.

RL: We would get messages. We didn’t have social media back then, but we would get emails from obscure places, globally. Messages of support.

And the support that came from other unions and around the world was something to behold. At that time the Canadian Auto Workers still existed. Every day of that strike, they brought sandwiches and soup to our offices and to the picket lines in Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw, and I’m going to guess Prince Albert as well. I lived off their food during that strike.

The SFL [Saskatchewan Federation of Labour] started a fund, because nobody knew what was going to happen with the court injunction, so donations were going there. It was the commitment of money should we need it.

I heard that you were fined for being in contempt, and that you earmarked those fines.

RL: The judge is the one who did that. I can’t remember how much the fine was. It wasn’t crazy, though. Let’s say it was $60k. The judge said it was the citizens of Saskatchewan who were harmed by our strike, so this was a way for the money to be paid to the benefit of the citizens of Saskatchewan. It went to the Hospitals of Regina Foundation, and St Paul’s Hospital’s foundation.

As opposed to going to some general pool for the government’s disposal.

RL: Exactly. Now, when we sent the cheque, we wrote a letter. Because it was (and is) possible for nurses to apply for grants and things from those hospital foundations. And we just wrote in this letter that we hoped they would put the money to funds that would be accessible to nurses to continue their education and enhance their nursing practice. Regina wrote back and said they would do that.

I’m curious about the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file. You seem to be saying you were deferring to the rank and file about staying out. What was the communication between leadership and the ranks?

RL: We had worked really closely. We knew this was going to be a really difficult round of bargaining, because all these new nurses that had come to us had their own collective agreements. So we had brought one member from each of those [units]. It was a really big committee, and our principle was, if public health nurses in Regina could accumulate up to 140 sick days, we wanted that for everybody. We knew we weren’t going to get that for everybody – we weren’t going to get everything for everybody – so our fallback position was “those that have it won’t lose it.”

So we built the support, because some of these nurses that came to us didn’t really want to. They had been active in their union, and were really sad to leave their union. We did membership meetings.

Our bargaining conference would have been in the fall of 1998 (October or November), and that’s where we took the principles, not the exact language, of what we were going to achieve in this round of bargaining. And there was absolute support for it.

Actually there was a motion from the floor that we take a strike vote before we ever started bargaining. And it was passed. That was not in our plans!

Just before Christmas we did what we call a “road trip” – so it’s typically a staff member, and a member of the bargaining committee or a board member – we sent people in groups of two and we hit every local in the province and took the strike vote. And we had an overwhelming strike vote before we ever went to the bargaining table.

So they finally walk off the job, and get legislated back to work. If we had said, “Okay, go back to work now,” it would have been political suicide for our union.

And even when it got to the point where we had negotiated this framework, and we told them “it’s time now to go back to work,” there was huge resistance, because we couldn’t say to them we had won anything; it was just broad commitments at this point, and we still had to negotiate the details of it. So it was hard to convince them that there was going to be something there. There was resistance to going back in some places, for sure.

What were some of the things that came out of the bargaining in ’99?

RL: There was a significant wage increase. We wanted pay equity, and there was a framework developed for that. So there was money committed, and then we bargained the wage scale to go with that in the 2002 round of bargaining.

Nurses rally during the 1999 Saskatchewan Union of Nurses strike | Image courtesy of Donna Ottenson

DO: Now, I’m not going to hide either there was a big economic crunch going on, and the government had mandated what the settlement was going to be. The number was put out there, that it had to fall within this certain percentage. And when we finally settled, that is what we got visibly, as far as wage increases, but they went out of their way to pad it. That is when they started paying our professional fees — at that point about $350 a year, for every nurse, that the employer was now responsible for. It had to be portrayed that we didn’t break the mandate, but we principally felt that we were able to achieve a lot of the things that we wanted to.

What about the understaffing issue?

RL: We have a process called the “Nursing Advisory Process” where you can document critical incidents that happen when there have been staff shortages — or issues with equipment, etc. Ultimately, if the employer and union don’t reach agreement, it goes to an Independent Assessment Committee (IAC). But the decision of the Independent Assessment Committee (IAC) was not binding. So we were trying to get those decisions to be binding.

DO: The IAC was supposed to be an unbiased, neutral party who would hear the situation and make recommendations. But we had no way to enforce the recommendations. We’d go through this whole process, and there would be an IAC hearing, and they would make recommendations, but then we had no way to make the employer institute them.

Part of the resolution to the strike was that an arbitrator would determine how the decisions of the IAC should be handled. And her decision was that the IAC would be binding, but only insofar as they affected our bargaining unit. So only if it determined that there should be more registered nursing staff. Sometimes our issues would be: nurses are so busy answering the phones and portering patients and delivering meals, but if we had a ward clerk to take off some of those non-nursing duties, or a few more special care aides to do some of that patient care, it would free up the nurses’ time. Well if the IAC determined that was the solution to the problem, the employer was not required to carry through on those recommendations, because it wasn’t affecting only our bargaining unit.

RL: So it was middle-of-the-road.

What were some of the lasting effects of the strike, besides the collective agreement?

DO: For nurses, I think they felt that they could speak up more in their workplace, that they had a right to be listened to. They felt pretty powerful. A lot of that was positive, but sometimes too it was used not as diplomatically as it could have been, with managers!

RL: Nurses went back to work with what I call “attitude.” They were so empowered by the action they had taken, the support that they got from the public, from other unions, they weren’t the nicest of people in relation to employers.

After our strike, government changed legislation and used licensed practical nurses (LPNs) way more in the health care system [relative to RNs, who were represented by SUN]. It was a payback on our members. That’s also where some of the attitude came from.

Were there lasting effects of the nurses defying the back-to-work legislation?

DO: At that point in time we had the most labor-friendly government possible in the province [the New Democratic Party], and they were the ones who ordered us back to work. The strike was in April, and they [the NDP] called an election at the end of June, and they ended up with a minority government. And I do think that was spillover from the strike. You don’t often have a labor-friendly government legislating unionized workers back to work. They had taken pride before in letting the bargaining process work itself out to get a negotiated collective agreement. We went on strike at 7:00 in the morning and at 11:00 in the morning they were tabling legislation to get us back to work, so there was no time to even see whether the job action was going to be effective or not.

RL: Since 2007, we have had a [much more right-leaning] Saskatchewan Party government, and one of the first things they did was rewrite the labor legislation in this province to be quite regressive. We challenged them, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, and I testified locally, in the appeals. And the Supreme Court of Canada struck down their legislation. So then it was rewritten, and they did work with unions to some degree on it, but still individuals and the union itself can be fined, and it’s huge fines [$100,000 for the union, $1,000 for employees]. I mean, it’s basically making it pretty impossible to strike. For anyone.

In some provinces, like Ontario, they haven’t had the right to strike either, or it’s very limited. There will be nursing homes that might go on strike, but the hospital nurses don’t have the right to strike. But what there is, is a dispute mechanism, and then you go to binding arbitration.

And the difficulty with that is, you might fare alright in wages and benefits, because typically an arbitrator will look at what makes sense there and write a reasonable decision. Usually. But what doesn’t get dealt with are things like workload. There are things that are harder to quantify, and basically you have to tell the story, and have public support, and those are the kinds of things that go by the wayside under this system of bargaining where you can’t strike and [the outcome is] written by an arbitrator.

Nurses attending a SUN rally in 1999 | Image courtesy of Donna Ottenson

DO: When we disobeyed the legislation and there was an injunction against us, it named the union, and Rosalee as President, myself as Chair of the Bargaining Committee, and our chief spokesperson. But when the case was settled, I think the employer even withdrew the charges against the individuals and it was just against the union. Where now, nobody has confidence that that would ever happen. We think that to defy the legislation, the fines would be horrendous. It would bankrupt the union and they could also fine individuals.

I would suggest to you that RNs will never again go on strike in Saskatchewan, because the employer now has the ability to determine who is essential. And we can challenge that, but it [ultimately] gets determined by a third party, what the numbers are, and so our strikes would never be as effective.

And you don’t think the members would ever defy that?

DO: No, because the legislation now is so draconian.

I’m interested in your opinion about whether that is a fight that could be taken on. Because you’ve retained some minimal right to strike, but do you effectively even have it at all?

DO: I’m very pessimistic about how effective job action would be now. Not only is there all this limitation on essential services, but you have to give notice, bargaining has to break off, and then there is a cooling off period, and you have to notify the minister, and then there is more time — you lose momentum. And once you go down a path, you have to keep building momentum.

What have bargaining sessions been like since the legislation was introduced? Have you seen an effect at the bargaining table now that striking has effectively been taken away?

DO: Probably. There haven’t been huge issues we’ve felt we had to take on… or maybe we’ve just been happy to keep our status quo and our small financial gain. Because we’ve been going through this whole crazy reorganization in the province for the past three years, and people are anxious about job security. So we haven’t been trying to make great strides.

What’s the reorganization about?

DO: We have changed from 12 health regions to 1.

What’s the day-to-day impact of that?

DO: It’s huge. They’re trying to standardize everything, but they don’t have the infrastructure to do it. We don’t know how services are going to be delivered, what’s going to happen to the regional hospitals, and whether they’re going to lose a lot of their services and it’s all just going to be funneled into the two big cities. It’s very unsettling if you’re working. At least before, you knew, within your own little region, that’s where you could move for job vacancies. We’re in bargaining right now and our goal is just trying to keep things the way they are until everything is in place for the new system.

So job action is way down on the totem. Way down. Nobody would– The last time we bargained, we came to an impasse, that was 2014, and our collective agreement came from a special mediator, and it again had to do with nurses being able to exercise their autonomy in determining if more staffing is needed. So the fight continues.

What’s your advice for other unions?

RL: We have to figure out what nurses really want. Sure we all like a pay increase and more vacation, but fundamentally, what is the common theme? We fought for all nurses to be paid the same. We fought for extended health benefits. Maternity benefits. Vacation. There was always some milestone to achieve.

And it takes years to build the case. You have to do the research; you have to build public support. In the lead-up to the ’99 strike, we were constantly highlighting the nursing shortage and the impact on patient care. We did news conferences, having nurses talk about the impact on patient care, and the impact on them as moms and wives, never knowing if they were going to be able to go home at the end of their shift, or if they would have to be there for another eight hours.

So it needs to be a multi-year plan, and then you strive for it. But you also have to manage your members’ expectations, because of this stupid legislation.