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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 >>

Working with the NPO as a representative of the Machinists

Tillow discusses her thoughts on joining the Nurses Professional Organization (NPO) in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1988. After explaining how the NPO was formed and their affiliation with the Machinists Union, Tillow explains that she was sent to Louisville by the Machinists to help the NPO organize their union election. Drawing on her past experiences, Tillow notes that she knew the campaign would be difficult; however, she was hopeful of success because of the nurses' momentum going into the election. She concludes by outlining some of the reasons many nurses might have feared joining a union, which she largely attributes to the NPO's narrow defeat.

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:
So you moved from Paducah to Louisville in, would that have been '89?
KAY TILLOW:
Mmm hmm.
SARAH THUESEN:
And the NPO fight is what brought you here?
KAY TILLOW:
Right. Well, what happened was I had worked for the Machinists Union during the organizing drive in Paducah and then after we won, I went back to Pittsburgh and then Gemma organized all of those nurses in those huge meetings I'm sure she told you about. They chose the Machinists Union, so the Machinists contacted me and asked me to come back and work on it.
SARAH THUESEN:
So you hadn't been a part of the process during those initial meetings where the Machinists were chosen?
KAY TILLOW:
No.
SARAH THUESEN:
Okay. When you moved back here, what were your expectations for how difficult the fight would be?
KAY TILLOW:
Oh, I knew how difficult fights were. Most of the organizing in Pennsylvania we did was in—in 1970, we got a state law that opened up collective bargaining in Pennsylvania for health care workers and that had not happened for the nation. The National Labor Relations Act was amended in '74, I think it was '74, to include the right to organize for people who worked in the health care sector. So we had done a lot of the organizing between '70 and '74 in those very, very early days and prior to the NLRB taking jurisdiction over health care, and things got harder in the late 70s. I remember my first time that I encountered 3M, Modern Management Methods, which was the union-busting outfit that was out of Chicago. They did a very systematic anti-union campaign. It was like a steamroller or a sledge hammer. It was huge. It was a battering ram. It just beat people up that wanted to have the union. So organizing had become more difficult because of the consultants that were in there now. There were no more little rural hospitals where a little old CEO's trying to run the campaign and sits people down in a classroom and says, "Vote no." I mean, these were professionally-managed campaigns that were just ferocious. I can go into detail if you want about what they would do, like at Uniontown Hospital, I remember one day the director of nursing reports to the nurses that someone went into the assistant director of nursing and wrote "bitch" in big red paint across her desk and everything and, "Isn't this terrible? This is what the union is going to do." Well, we didn't know anything about it, but obviously they may have actually done it. We don't know whether they actually did it or whether they just told the story, but that kind of thing would just take over to create this atmosphere that the union was violent. And oh, someone went in and a nurse reported that her car had been dented in the parking lot. So the hospital paid for the dent and said that's the kind of thing that happens with the union around. They were just massive campaigns to isolate the nurses who were leading the campaign and just terrible literature about the union and creating fantastic fear. It had almost become impossible to organize. So I had been through all that. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, because that greatly slowed the growth of the union during that period of time. I mean, I didn't have any illusions. What was exciting to me was that there were hundreds of nurses who came out to meetings that were ready to take on Humana and of course, I hated Humana. I knew the stories of profit-making taking over in the health care field. I knew that that was not good. So the fact that the nurses in there were rebelling and ready to stand up and take it on and try to do something was very exciting. It was a good time. So I thought, "Hey, we got something here. We may be able to win with hundreds of people ready to stand up." They had all been on TV already. Gemma called the press. She was always press savvy and she had called the press and they had had microphones and cameras. And the nurses were telling the story about how they didn't want their patients to die and when they understaffed in these intensive care units, they weren't able to give the attention they needed and that they really had to do something about it. So they were doing good stuff. I think they started in January and I came in March.
SARAH THUESEN:
Had you ever worked in a hospital that was owned by Humana before coming to Louisville?
KAY TILLOW:
I never worked in a hospital.
SARAH THUESEN:
I should say organizing, trying to organize a hospital that was owned by Humana before coming to Louisville.
KAY TILLOW:
No.
SARAH THUESEN:
Okay. You just knew about them generally?
KAY TILLOW:
Yes, we all knew.
SARAH THUESEN:
So initially, you were pretty optimistic given the enthusiasm among the nurses here?
KAY TILLOW:
Well, I mean I was hopeful. I knew it would be hard, but I was very hopeful about it, because I think that, well what organizers always believe, if we didn't we wouldn't do it, that it is possible for people to build the kind of unity to overcome all of those obstacles, that there is inherent in humanity great possibilities to change it to make it better and a great desire to do that. So you keep looking for the ways to make that happen and to accelerate that.
SARAH THUESEN:
Over the next however many months that you were working prior to the election, the election took place in—
KAY TILLOW:
There was an election in December of '89 and there was an election in March of '94.
SARAH THUESEN:
So in the months leading up to that first election, in trying to build a base of nurses who were interested in joining, what sorts of resistance did you find from nurses who were hesitant? How did they explain their reasons for not wanting to join the union?
KAY TILLOW:
Well, for some it was fear. For some, I remember at the time we were unable to persuade the nurses who worked in education, which that was a very good thing to have nurse education. They've done away with most of that these days because profit-making hospitals and other hospitals don't see education as important. But there was an education department with maybe six or seven nurses whose job it was to ensure that nurses coming in had the proper orientation, all the proper courses, all the specialized kinds of understanding to work in their units, etcetera. But we were unable to persuade them, I think because the nature of the job, they didn't feel the same pressures that the nurses on the units and the floors did, that frantic understaffing. So I think it gave people a different perspective. It was a little bit higher up on the scale and less frantic. So often we couldn't persuade those people who didn't experience the problem in the same way.