Kate Irene Smith is a nurse of the world ... literally. In her 46 years in the nursing profession, she has cared for the sick and helped heal the wounded in 17 different hospitals throughout 7 countries. She has treated patients in Iceland and New Zealand and all points in between.
Today, Ms. Smith makes her home in Charleston, S.C., where she is a Navy veteran and registered nurse at the Charleston VA Medical Center, which serves more than 40,000 veterans in 15 counties along the South Carolina and Georgia coastline. She has been president of Local R5-150 at the center for 15 years, since the day nurses there elected NAGE to represent them.
"When I first came to the Charleston VA, there was no union for RNs, although NAGE was representing LPN's (licensed practical nurses) at the time," Smith said. "I got really active in lobbying to get nurses their own union. I saw how much better LPNs were being treated and I knew it was because they had a union and a contract. I knew that we needed the same kind of representation."
Ms. Smith spoke of the days before the union, of how RNs were often denied vacation leave for holidays like Christmas, while their LPN colleagues had few problems with it because it was addressed in their contract. She recounted the arguments with supervisors and managers over things most of us take for granted, things like lunch breaks and quick rests for coffee. It wasn't the pay or benefits nurses had trouble with, she said. It was the most basic issues they were fighting for: fairness, dignity, and respect.
"We wanted a voice in determining our working conditions," she said. "Nobody was fighting for money or saying 'I don't get paid enough.' What we were for fighting for was to be treated like professionals, to have a say in our jobs. It was about getting what we needed in order to do our jobs, to provide the best care possible to our patients."
Ms. Smith worked like crazy to get the union in, and she hasnít slowed down since that enormous victory 15 years ago. Despite struggles with management who sometimes prove inefficient and reluctant to change, Ms. Smith has scored a number of significant victories for her local and for VA nurses across the nation. One of her proudest accomplishments was the work she did with the contract negotiations team.
The contract, a national one covering all nurses in all NAGE-represented VA medical centers took four years, countless hours, and numerous flights to places like Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Ms. Smith speaks fondly of that time and of the many NAGE members she worked with, despite the hard work it took to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement for so many people with so many different ideas of what a contract should look like.
Ms. Smith also has reason to take pride in the changes her work brought to the Charleston VA.
Ten years ago, her facility was in the national spotlight, beset with charges of fraud, abuse, and staff and financial mismanagement. She and her fellow local president, Phil Truesdell, had tried first to bring the issues to the attention of the VA, but to no avail. That's when they went to Congress.
"Phil (Truesdell) and I testified before Congress about how bad the situation was," she said. "We told Congressional members at the hearing about the critical shortages in nursing staff, about the nepotism, about management officials' abuse of power, about the fraud and waste and mismanagement that were wreaking havoc on employee morale.
"We also told them about the fear employees had about speaking out. We all knew we were at risk of retribution if we criticized management or brought attention to all the problems."
Ms. Smith's and Mr. Truesdell's willingness to speak out paid off for all employees at the VA center and for all the patients they cared for. Because of the testimony they presented before Congress, changes came, management leadership was replaced, and the center was cleaned up of the fraud and waste and abuse. Today, because of their strength and courage, the Charleston VA Medical Center is a much better place to work and to be treated."I'm proud of what Phil and I and the union did," said Ms. Smith. "But I'm just as proud of the work we and the union continue to do every day. On any given day, if I can successfully defend a member from wrongful reprimand or termination, then I feel good. I've never had a nurse join the union and then withdraw for any reason other than leaving for a different job or retiring."
Just one more thing for Ms. Smith to be proud of!