Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Organizing nurses for WIN

Ziegler discusses her first participation in union activities with We're Involved in Nursing (WIN) in 1979. Ziegler had been working as a nurse for four years before she became involved with WIN. She describes here how she was recruited into the organization by the founder of WIN, Carol King. Ziegler and King worked to organize nurses, often facing strident opposition from hospital administrators, as she describes here. She explains that nurses were enthusiastic to join until the recession of 1981 hit and people began more concerned about job security.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. 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

Do you know what union that would have been in '75?
It was WIN, We're Involved in Nursing. The leader of that and the founder of that was Carol King. Carol is now deceased. She died at fifty-four, wonderful, energetic, just bright smile, personality, plus she was married to an attorney. She worked at Our Lady of Peace and she started that movement. But she had decided that she had gone with the Kentucky Nursing Association. She had a BSN and that was her professional organization and that's where she led everybody. The union movement at that time with nurses was at Our Lady of Peace, St. Mary's, which is now Caritas, and there was another one. I was raised Catholic, Carol was raised Catholic, and we were just stunned later on when we talked about it by how these Catholic hospitals reacted to unions. They were vicious, absolutely vicious, firing nurses. But I don't know that much about that union except for several nurses lost jobs and it was in the courts for years. And by the time it got through, the nurses were long gone. But Carol was in this nurses' movement. That first nurses' movement was WIN. That was actually like about '75. but then when she started this one, it was like in '79 and she was just kind of pulling it together. She was wanting to go with another union. She was just starting back over to revive the union movement. So my husband told me that the administrators were all having a meeting to fight the union, to work together on busting this union. It made me so mad. So I called her and I said, "I just want to let you know this is what's going on." She invited me to a union meeting. In fact, I think it was that evening at her house. And as luck had it, she lived only a half a mile from me. I went to the meeting and met nurses that are still good friends of mine and I haven't seen them for awhile, but Lee Kaiser, Susie Martin, a very strong woman, outspoken. Lee Kaiser is a male nurse, one of the few male nurses. And Carol, and I can't think of some of the other ones' names. But we were in her home and when I got ready to leave, she asked me if I would help her organize. I said, "Well, I have no idea what to do." She said, "I don't either," but she said, "We're just trying. We're just trying to do our best." So the first assignment I had—at that time, she had two little boys and one was my son's age, which was about nine, and her other one was, I think, about seven—we were going to go leaflet Baptist Hospital. I'd never done anything like this in my life. So I helped her do the leaflets and she called. She said, "Now what we have to do first," she said, "Because the first thing that'll happen is you stand out there leafleting and they're going to call the police on you and try to scare you and say you're on public property." She grew up in St. Matthews. She called the mayor of St. Matthews and found out where the property line, where public access was on, I can't think of the name of the road, where Baptist Hospital is. She found out how many feet from the center line. We took our measuring tape and we stood there. Well, we were leafleting and talking to the nurses as they're getting off their shift with our kids. Our kids are holding up signs. We're talking to nurses as they're coming out and they sent out the security to chase us away. This is where I learned my guts from Carol, because I was such a chicken. I thought, "Oh shit, let's get to the car." She goes, "No, just stay right here." He said, "Ma'am, you're going to have to leave." I'm like, "Okay," and getting ready to pack up. She goes, "We are on public property and you have no right to make us leave. We have every right to be here." "Well ma'am, the administrator—." She said, "I don't care." And we looked, you could see the administrators and all the people standing up at the window looking out at this guy chasing us away and we wouldn't leave. So anyway, we stayed until we did our job and then we left and it was so, what do I want to say? It was enlightening for one thing, but so empowering to think, you know, I would have just walked away. Carol was pretty incredible. She and Kay are two of the strongest women that I've known through all of this and knowledgeable and smart. And Carol was just fun. Through all of this, I've had such a great time. We've had some hard times, but most of it's been exciting. So anyway, I was working with Carol and we were organizing Our Lady of Peace, that's where she worked part-time, Baptist Hospital, and there was one other one. Maybe it was Audubon. It was Audubon. And we were doing really well, really well, and then all of a sudden, the recession came. Nurses, a lot of them, their spouses worked at Ford. International Harvester, a lot of spouses worked there and that closed, that shut down. Quite a few of our big plants shut down and people were afraid. They needed their money. It just kind of fizzled out. We were talking to unions to find out who to affiliate with. We wanted control, but we wanted to affiliate with a big union. Well, we met with the Teamsters and we were invited to AFSCME, to Philadelphia up to their convention. The funny thing is Kay and her husband were at the convention, but we never met them. So we went to the convention, but we end up going with Tom Woodward. What is that union? Isn't that awful? Kay will know. It was 1199, because they had a lot of hospitals. They had some hospitals in the South and they had organized hospitals before. We were going great guns and we were having house meetings. We'd call up nurses. Our meetings were full. Nurses wanted to organize. But then when this came, the recession came, was that '81?
It was just like it fizzled, totally fizzled. People were just terrified and the hospitals knew it. They were threatening people that they would lose their jobs.