Early Days

There have been support staff at the University of Alberta since the first classes were held on the top floor of Duggan Street (Queen Alexandra) School in Strathcona beginning in 1908. However, an employee association that represented non-academic staff did not begin to emerge until after the Second World War. Once called "Servants of the University," but also known as "sub-staff," non-academic university employees are barely acknowledged in university archival documents. The presence and contribution of a major group of university personnel has been virtually excluded from this institution's historical records, yet extensive research through assorted archives reveals a diverse and colourful past that deserves its place alongside other histories of this institution.

Alberta's first University Act (1906) -- through its definition of support staff as "other necessary officers, assistants and servants to the University" -- brought staff under the purview of the University Act and not the Labour Act, thus limiting labour activity on campus. Before the Second World War, the University, as employer, had absolute and arbitrary control over the working conditions and wages of support staff, and Provincial Governments controlled the institution's funding.

The inadequate legislation was exploited by both the University administration and Provincial government to arbitrarily set staff working conditions and wages. Seventy hours of work per week was not uncommon and there were no policies defining occupational duties and responsibilities. Workers performed any task or risked losing jobs. Employees could be terminated for unauthorized smoke-breaks. There were no guidelines to set wages and salaries. Two individuals with the same qualifications and experience, performing similar duties -- but in different departments -- might receive radically disparate wages. And the reason could be as arbitrary as the whim of a supervisor or department head. Supervisors were known to spy on staff and demote or fire those not in ones good graces. In some campus buildings, staff were not provided access to locker or washroom facilities.

Rapid expansion of the university following the Second World War put tremendous strain upon working relations between the University and its support staff. Employees began to realize they needed to organize bargaining collectively, and they sought information from established unions and associations, including the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). The CCL had organized employees at the University of Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada, but CCL recruitment drives in Edmonton brought opposition from University administrators and campus employees with affiliations to other unions.

The war-time alliance between the Soviet Union and the West had collapsed and we saw the rise of the Cold War. Union activists with communist affiliations -- real and alleged -- were accused of being subversives. In Alberta, the CCL was attacked for having ties with international and local communist organizations. University funding came directly from the Provincial Government, and it was no secret that Premier Ernest C. Manning was vehemently anti-Communist and anti-union.

Concern spread through administrative levels that the University might have to deal with a militant union if the CCL gained a foothold on campus. The past success of the CCL to win representation on other campuses was a clear signal. Intervention from the office the University President resulted in moves to obstruct the CCL and to facilitate a more benign alternative. In the end, over ninety percent of University support staff were encouraged to vote to form an independent, non-aligned, organization.

However, this initiative was blocked by the CCL-backed organizing group who pointed to their earlier charter application for representation. It became clear to opponents of the CCL that the only way to circumvent the appeal was for support staff to apply individually for associate membership in the already-established Civil Service Association of Alberta (CSA). A small corps of support staff -- working with the active assistance of University Administration -- generated a recruiting drive that quickly signed nearly every non-academic employee as associate members of the CSA. The drive culminated on July 30, 1947, with the inauguration of Branch 22, representing full-time non-academic staff in Edmonton and Calgary.

Charges of unfair labour practices inevitably followed. The CCL contested the legality of Branch 22, but lost a ruling by the Labour Relations Board. The CCL was driven off campus.