Heather Smith… leading nurses in advocating for their patients

Nurses elected Heather Smith as provincial UNA President after the major hospital nurses' strike in 1988. Heather had played a major role in the historic dispute as a member of the negotiating committee and as a public spokesperson. Heather had been President of her UNA Local #79 at the Edmonton General Hospital. It was concern about her patients that Heather says got her involved in her union.

Born and raised in Ontario, Heather Smith graduated from Algonquin College in 1976 and came to Alberta to work as a nurse. Starting out in nursing is a challenging experience that most nurses have in common. Heather recalls: "It's terrifying. You have no idea the kind of terror you have, the first time you are in charge. The first time you're the only person on the unit, which was common at that time, on a night shift and there's 44 people out there, some of them are incredibly ill." 

She says she'd always wanted to be a nurse. "I never looked into what I was going to be paid as a nurse. I never really considered what the hours of work were going to be or that I'd be working eight days stretches The Edmonton General was a fairly good employer and getting one in three weekends off was actually a real luxury. But I didn't think about any of those things."

Just months after starting her career, Heather was out on the picket line in the first UNA strike.

"Senior nurses on my unit said, come on, Heather, we're going on strike and there was a very respectful relationship… well I didn't know what the issues were or what was really happening but I said okay. Mrs. Schwindt and Mrs. Barr say this is what we're going to do, then this is what we're going to do."

She says the three strikes, in 1977, 1980 and 1982 were a huge education "within our union in terms of getting nurses to believe in their own value. I recall we got this wage proposal, and some of it sounded really ridiculous, you know, we were asking for 40% increases. But we were paid less then the Safeway packing people. We started to question the value of our contribution to health care."

Within a few years UNA had succeeded in negotiating responsibility committees, a mechanism for nurses to raise issues of patient safety and professional concerns.

"Some people came to me on my unit and said: You tend to be fairly mouthy about patient care issues. It was really, really hard work in the medical unit I was on. So [they said] we just got this committee and you should come and be on it. And that's how I started and became active in the union around professional responsibility."

Within a couple of years Heather Smith was President of her UNA Local and in 1985 she was elected to the provincial hospital nurses' negotiating committee.  In 1988, she was again elected to the committee.  In 1983, the Alberta government had made it illegal for hospital nurses to strike.

Nurses didn't really see themselves as being on strike for themselves, Heather says. They were on strike to achieve improvements for their patients, like the Professional Responsibility Committee.

"It doesn't matter what law you pass, we'll do whatever we have to do, because that's what nurses did. It was equivalent to hoarding laundry. You knew that on the weekends there was going to be a shortage of laundry because they never, ever provided enough face clothes and laundry. So, Friday, you squirreled it away. You did what you had to do to make sure you had the laundry for your patients on the weekend."

In 1988 there was a nursing shortage in the province, but the employers came to the table demanding contract rollbacks.  "That's the kind of arrogance they had, the disregard, the lack of respect they had for us. So from the start it was clear: there was going to be a confrontation." Heather says.  UNA nurses defied the law prohibiting them from striking, paid fines that were the highest ever in Canada. Finally they reached a negotiated settlement.

In the 1990s, nurses faced further problems: huge health care funding cuts from the federal and provincial governments, hospital closures and the layoff of thousands of Registered nurses. The huge cuts galvanized nurses to defending the public health care system.

Heather Smith had earlier joined the Friends of Medicare coalition. With the cuts nurses became more vocal about broader health care system issues.

"When we are criticizing government's actions we are fairly clear in tying that back to the impact on patients," Heather Smith says.  She became a widely recognized leader on the issue of public health care and the nurses became strong partners in the campaigns opposing the provincial Bill 37 and Bill 11 laws and the government's health care privatization agenda.

At the same time, more and more nurses came into the UNA fold. In 1997, the Staff Nurses Association of Alberta and UNA amalgamated. Other nurses also joined the provincial union, including nurses in community health care and in private nursing home facilities. By 2005, nearly 23,000 of the approximately 27,000 Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses in Alberta were members of UNA.

Heather Smith also continued on the provincial contract negotiating committee and has participated in seven rounds of collective bargaining. She is widely respected as a skilled negotiator and nurses in Alberta enjoy one of the best collective agreements in the country.





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