On March 26, 1982, the government of Premier Allan Blakeney ordered about 5,000 striking non-medical hospital workers back to work and passed legislation making any strike illegal during election campaigns. One day later, as angry workers demonstrated outside NDP headquarters in Regina, Blakeney announced that a general election would be held on April 26. The first province-wide hospital strike in Saskatchewan history had begun on March 11, when 420 workers at two Prince Albert hospitals, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), walked out. The strike escalated within two weeks until almost 5,000 hospital employees were walking picket lines.
This strike was the product of years of frustration by health care workers, who felt they were underpaid and undervalued, pointing out that their wages were 27% less than the Saskatchewan average. The back-to-work order only added to that feeling, and created cynicism and bitterness towards a government supposedly supportive of working people. The provincial division of CUPE decided to run one of its members, Carol Stadnyk, as an independent candidate in Saskatoon against cabinet minister Herman Rolfes; recommended voting for Aboriginal People’s Party candidates in ten ridings; and urged its members in other ridings to spoil their ballots by writing in Stadnyk’s name. If the Blakeney government’s back-to-work decision was an attempt to garner public sympathy and win it another term in office, it failed miserably: the Tories, led by Grant Devine, won 55 seats while the NDP was reduced to only nine members.
The strike and subsequent actions by CUPE officials caused divisions within both the party and the union. Some CUPE members blamed their fellow health care colleagues for going on strike at that time; some even suggested that their actions and the subsequent decision not to support the NDP were responsible for the election defeat.