Remembering a local political mentor – In her words

MARQUETTE, Mich. — As the Upper Peninsula mourns the passing of proud Registered Nurse, leader in the Michigan Nurses Association, chair of the MCDP and member of the U.P. Labor Hall of Fame, Carolyn Heitamaki, many are honoring her memory on social media.

She was my friend, supporter of our campaign, and a strong community leader. We would be hard pressed to find someone untouched by her passion, wisdom, and activism.

The most poignant post was published this morning, an autobiography by Carolyn shared by the UPRLF, which highlighted Caroyln’s passions in her own words.

“This past week has been an extremely difficult time for all of those involved with the UPRLF,” says the UP Regional Labor Federation. “It’s impossible for us to express just what Carolyn meant to the labor movement in the UP, so we figured we would let Carolyn speak for herself by sharing what she wrote in her UP Labor Hall of Fame inductee biography.”

Carolyn Hietamaki RN, Autobiography UP Labor Hall of Fame

I was born in Wakefield, Michigan on December 19, 1952. My father was a bulldozer operator for a lumber company and then worked for the Ontonagon County Road Commission. My mother was a homemaker.

My activism began in high school when a group of us from our sociology class were tasked with asking citizens to sign on to our “Declaration to change the United States,” since the Vietnam War was raging.

Very few people would sign on. What they did not know was that, we were asking them to sign on to the “Preamble of the United States Constitution”.

I graduated from the Ewen-Trout Creek High School in 1971. Graduation started me on my journey into many different fields of work.

I became an Angus farmer for the next seven years. During the second year, I fell from a barn I was roofing, fracturing and dislocating an area in my lumbar spine. I was hospitalized for four weeks and then had surgery with placement of Harrington Rods. This experience would eventually change my life and my career.

In 1977, was asked to enter the Operating Engineers apprentice program near Rock, Michigan and there became proficient at driving a dozer and a grader.

This experience was short lived when, on a ride back to Marquette, Michigan, I was asphyxiated with carbon monoxide and showed all the physical signs. I did not have the money for a replacement vehicle so I had to leave the apprentice program.

I did not give up, so I became a server at the old Marquette Inn so I could save money to go to college. I applied and was accepted to the Licensed Practical Nurse Program and started in 1979.

In addition, that year I was married to the boy next door from Trout Creek, Michigan and 38 years later, we still are as happy, if not more so. Since he was in the United States Air Force, this allowed me to begin college and graduate in June of 1980. I started my 36.5-year career in nursing.

In 1988, there was a shortage of registered nurses and Marquette General Hospital started a program with Bay De Noc and Northern Michigan University. Their big mistake! Graduation was in December of 1989. My registered nursing career and my union activism was just about to start. I became a member of the Michigan Nurses Association.

That spring due to a lovely snake oil saleswoman RN, who talked me into running for the negotiating team, I stated down the path that lead me here. It started many years of negotiating contracts until retirement. This was the start of a career in the local union, holding all offices except Chief Grievance Steward.

In 1994, we had a 58-day strike, which we conducted to protect staffing for our patients, and we won. That fall I was elected the President of the local and held that position until retirement. The last year and a half of my work life was spent mentoring my replacement.

Being an MNA member started my involvement in the state association. I was elected as a member to the Economic and General Welfare Cabinet. Since we had non-union members, we had to have insulation.

I served as the E&GW cabinet chair, the E&GW representative to the MNA board of directors (BOD) 1996-2003. Then I was elected to the MNA BOD as Secretary. Their mistake! They started to try to limit our ability to organize other nurses, like all good union members we organized and took over the MNA BOD at a Convention.

The non-union members could be associate members but not serve on the board. They thought we would fail but we are stronger today.

I also served at the national level in the development of the United American Nurses 2000-2009 and served as a director-at-large 2007-2009. We became part of the AFL-CIO, with our president serving on the Executive Board of the AFL-CIO. Once again, we did not see the growth for the union nurses and then started talks the California Nurses Association and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Through long talks with them, we formed the National Nurses United for which I served as founding Secretary and as the Political Action Committee Chair. This arrangement did not last long because they wanted to control the Michigan Nurses Association in a way in which we did not want to be controlled.

Therefore, we took our members out of the NNU and we are still doing well to this day. I was elected as Vice President of MNA and then as Treasurer, positions I held until retirement. I continue as the MNA Political Action Committee Chair.

From spending time in Wisconsin fighting for the rights of the workers there, we went to our state capital to fight to stop Michigan from becoming a right to work state. We washed tear gas from our brothers and sisters’ eyes after the police on horseback sprayed them. We were also in the rotunda when the vote was taken. The outcome of that day will be etched in our memories forever.

I am involved in the Marquette County Democratic Party, serving as a precinct delegate and for the last three years as Vice-Chair of the party. I have also been active in many campaigns, doing phone calls and door knocking here, below the bridge and even in other states.

I have been a member of the Board of Directors of the Upper Peninsula Labor Management Council since 1997. I have served as previous Chair and am now serving as Treasurer for the past four years. I have been active in High School Bargaining Training in the past. This allows the youth of today to see the importance of unions.

Finally, yet importantly, I have been involved in the Marquette County Labor Council/ Marquette Alger Community Labor Council since 2001, served as a trustee on the Executive Board, then as the Upper Peninsula Regional Labor Federation was born, I was elected Treasurer.

During this period, some very prestigious awards have been bestowed upon me. These are held near and dear to my heart because fellow nurses and patients made that nomination. In 2010 The Outstanding Contribution to MNA, 2013, 2015 the Cheryl Johnson Labor Leader of the Year, the Trillium Nurse for the second quarter of 2014 and the Trillium Nurse of the year for 2014 from Upper Peninsula Health System: Marquette. In 2016, I was inducted into the Michigan Nurses Association Hall of Fame. Now, the planned induction into the Upper Peninsula Labor Hall of Fame, nominated by fellow union activists, is the reason for which short autobiography is being written.

As you can see, there has been a lot of involvement in many union actions and social justice issues and I have been noticed by others for it. But my passion of caring for the patient has been and will always be number one. My union and my contracts have always allowed me to use it for the betterment of the patients and my fellow nurses. I will always work hard for social justice issues and the downtrodden.

My motto to live by to get something changed is: you go through the front door and if that does not work, go through the back door; if that does not work, go through the windows; if that does not work, go through the chimney; and if that fails, you might have to knock a hole in the wall.