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Britain's first black president

NEW POST: Eleanor Smith (centre) launching a hotline to combat racism in the National Service with Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON and colleague Karen Jennings

A DISTINGUISHED nurse from Birmingham who became the first black woman to become president of powerful union, UNISON, says being a theatre nurse helped prepare her for her top job.

Eleanor Smith, who made history on June 27 when she took up her new post, told The Voice she was able to transfer skills learned in her 20 years of nursing to her trade union roles, including helping people who need support.

“As a nurse you are basically helping patients. As a trade unionist you are helping fellow staff,” said Smith.

“In theatre, you are working with doctors, they need you to act as a support. You work in a very strenuous, tense environment and you have to be cool, calm and collected to carry out your job and in the trade union movement, you have to be that as well...

“There are times when you are negotiating when things get very tense but you still have to be relaxed, cool and don’t go over the top. I use the skills that I have learnt in my theatre role within the trade union movement. I always say those skills are transferable.”

The veteran trade unionist, who began with former union NUPE in the early 1990s and later worked her way up in UNISON after it merged with NUPE, also said running 26 miles per week helps her keep her focus.

“It’s a challenge. I love challenges and a healthy lifestyle. Also, the type of work I do can be very stressful so that de-stresses me,” Smith, a mother of two, said.

“It’s time-out for me. When I have my earphones in and I am running with the music in my ears, I am away. Your mind is completely cleared. It actually helps your thought process as well.

FRESH

“If I do it mostly in the mornings then I feel fresh and all fired up and ready to start again. Or if I do it in the evening, with all that was happening, it kind of washes (stress) away.“

The former school governor, chair and West Midlands branch secretary is heavily involved in the trade union movement, being elected vice-chair of the Midlands Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 2008, representing UNISON on the TUC General Council since 2007 and being a TUC Race Relations Committee member since 2005.

She told The Voice that her first 100 days in the job have involved raising the “profiles of those individuals and groups who are being treated unfairly and to let individuals realise the inequality that is in this government’s agenda.”

Smith has vowed to tackle inequality in the workplace which has seen many terms and conditions “slashed and taken away” and promote fairer access to public services.


DETERMINED: Theatre nurse Eleanor Smith

“I’d like to see a difference. We have a government at the moment which is attacking the public sector, particularly with the pensions which will be affecting a lot of people in our community because they tend to be the groups who work in the lower end of the public sector.

“I want to show that UNISON is supporting our members, fighting everywhere we can, campaigning and organising in regards to this issue and bringing it to light.” she added.

The former Girl Guide who always wanted to “give back to the community” will still be working as a theatre nurse while she is president.

“I do it to keep me well rounded because even though I am a trade unionist, I like to know what’s going on,” said Smith, who began her nursing training at age 19, inspired by her mother and an aunt.

EXCITEMENT

“I have been a theatre nurse for a number of years and I do love it. It is very stressful but it has that excitement that I enjoy. I get that buzz when I am in there, knowing that we have someone on the table in there and we are saving their life or extending it. That is what I like.”

She has remained in the trade union movement because of her desire to see people get fairly treated. “I do believe in justice for individuals.

“It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about making sure that things are being done fairly.”

But she does not rule out being in Parliament some day. “I quite like politics and I never say never,” she laughed.
Despite her hectic schedule, the grandmother of one still finds time for other hobbies.

“I do like to read when I get the time. I read fiction. People will go ‘Oh I can’t believe you read that?’ but I like them. I like romantic fiction. I like to escape into that.”

She urged other black people to follow in her footsteps and succeed no matter what the obstacles black workers faced.

“There’s always ways of getting there,” she said. “If you are determined, you will get there. As one door shuts another opens.”

She added that “It’s about succession planning. I want to make sure I am not the only black person who has ever been President of UNISON. That is what I would like. That would be my legacy.”

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