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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Kay Tillow, June 23, 2006. Interview U-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Return to the South as a Machinists Union organizer

Tillow discusses her work in Paducah, Kentucky, for the International Association of Machinists in 1988. Tillow had been working for the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (Local 1199) in Pennsylvania before returning to her home state of Kentucky. Tillow describes her reasons for returning to the South, noting her belief that social change in the South was imperative to issues of national social justice. In addition, she describes how the initially successful unionization campaign was defeated by "massive employer resistance."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Kay Tillow, June 23, 2006. Interview U-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
Did you move directly back to Louisville?
KAY TILLOW:
No, I went to work on a campaign in Paducah at the hospital where I was born, which was the old Riverside Hospital. It's now Lourdes. It was Lourdes when we did—. I'd heard that there was a campaign going on there and I contacted the Machinists Union and said I'd like to work on it. I thought I could spend some time with my parents. So I went and worked on that campaign in '88, I think it was.
SARAH THUESEN:
Was that a successful campaign?
KAY TILLOW:
Yes, we won. But tragically, when the first contract expired, there was a decertification effort and the union was destroyed.
SARAH THUESEN:
What do you think explains that?
KAY TILLOW:
Well, I would say mainly massive employer resistance, mainly. But also I think there were some errors by the union that made it difficult. That was the Machinists Union. They had a strike vote that was not overwhelming and so then they carried through on the strike, but that made for a difficult situation with some of the people going in. It was very hard. It was very hard. I wasn't there at the time, but they worked on it and they had lots and lots of community support and they just couldn't break through because the hospital had been able to get enough people to cross the line to be able to function. So it was a heartbreaking situation. Well, it's part of the story we see a lot of places about breaking unions and destroying, just destroying them, and so much pressure on people. The workers fought valiantly, but they just didn't have enough. I mean, the same thing is true at the other end of the state in Pikeville. It's been organized and then the union broken a couple of times. Kentucky, I would say, well many states, but Kentucky's a place where they really battle to keep the hospitals non-union.
SARAH THUESEN:
Besides having family roots here, were there other reasons that you had an interest in moving back south?
KAY TILLOW:
I like it.
SARAH THUESEN:
What does being in the South mean for a labor organizer? Is it different here?
KAY TILLOW:
I don't know. I think one of the things that dates back to the civil rights movement era was that people, we believed that if you could change the South, you could change the country. And of course, that was, if you would look at it politically in terms of the politics of the South and who represented the South before African-Americans could vote, for certain it was the most backward policies that we could find. So the question was, if you could ever crack it in terms of building a movement of black and white and a progressive movement in the South, you could really change the country. I guess that never left me. That was something that everybody always thought during the civil rights movement. Plus I like it. The pace is my style.