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

Revived interest in organizing nurses and the founding of the NPO

Ziegler recounts the revived effort to organize nurses in 1989, following the failed efforts of WIN nearly a decade earlier. Here, Ziegler outlines the renewed interest in organizing and the enthusiastic response of Louisville nurses. Noting that difficulties nurses faced because of staffing issues as the primary motivation for nurses to organizing, Ziegler concludes by explaining the new organization's name—Nurses Professional Organization (NPO)—and their decision to ally with a more prominent union.

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

SARAH THUESEN:
And your organization at that point, was that still WIN?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Yeah, that was still WIN. Carol and I used to get really frustrated because so many nurses were afraid to come to meetings. We were going really well and we had a lot of cards signed, but there were still some that were just afraid and wouldn't stand up to management. Carol said, "We just need to organize the patients. We just need to get a patients union." So anyway, we just kind of stepped back. Then about 1989—I forgot how I was even going to start it. Did I get a call? I got a call. [pause] Let's see, this is in '89. I think I got a call from someone and asked me to help them to organize. Who was that? Isn't that awful? It's a key point of the story. A nurse called me and said, "Things are horrible. Will you help us organize?" It might have been Soffia. She was a classmate of mine.
SARAH THUESEN:
I've seen her name in a couple of—
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Yeah, she's a character.
SARAH THUESEN:
Clippings about the origins of the group.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Soffia.
SARAH THUESEN:
Do you remember her last name?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Atherton, but now it's—. She's lives here in Louisville. I have her phone number out there. She's remarried and I can't remember her new name.
SARAH THUESEN:
Okay, yeah. She might be a good one for me to talk to.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
She's a character. Oh, she was something. She was the IV nurse and she was our main soldier. She was all over the hospital. She had the union cards under her clipboard for her IVs. Oh, she had a ball. She got a lot of people to sign cards. So anyway, I call Carol and I said, "Carol, I got a call and they want us to help them organize." She said, "Well, are you up to it again?" I said, "Yeah, let's give it a try." One of the doctors at the hospital, can't think of his name either. I can see him. My husband knows him name and I can get him to think of it. Anyway—
SARAH THUESEN:
That's okay.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
He called the Courier-Journal and told them that we were going to have a union meeting. What we said, "We'll get—call maybe ten or fifteen of the old nurses, and we'll meet at one of the hotels in one of their little conference rooms and see what we can bat around and see what direction we were going." So this doctor calls a reporter and said he heard nurses were going to have a union meeting. Well, the reporter, Joe Ward, called my home. He asked me about it and I told him that the staffing was awful and that there were serious patient issues and a lot of issues and that we were going to have this meeting. Well, he writes it and puts it in the paper the day before our meeting. We were going to have three meetings and we figured, seriously, maybe ten persons at a meeting. The reason we ended up having three was because we started getting calls that evening: "So-and-so's coming and so-and-so's coming, but they can't make it at this time," so we went ahead and set it up for, we ended up having to open up to a huge room. We had like three hundred people show up to the evening meeting. At the morning meeting, we had sixty people. Nurses were angry. They were fed up. They wanted the Teamsters. One nurse said, "I want somebody to slit administration's tires." When you look at it, they were wanting somebody to do the dirty work. They just wanted it solved and they wanted somebody else to do it for them. From the very beginning, we go, "You have to do this yourself. Nurses have to do this for themselves." Was it at that meeting we had invited unions? Any union that wanted to come, Kentucky Nurses, anybody, we told them they could come. I think it was in the article. Have you seen the article? I think it was in the article that we were inviting unions to come to talk to the nurses.
SARAH THUESEN:
I haven't seen the particular article you're referring to, no.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
It shows me and Carol King sitting together. I don't think I have it. I don't think I saved any of that.
SARAH THUESEN:
I'll see if I can track that down.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Okay, it's a Courier-Journal article, Joe Ward. So anyway, the Machinists came and spoke, the Teamsters, 1199, the KNA, and the KNA woman, I felt sorry for her. The nurses shouted her down: "You all have never done anything for us. You're on the side of management." Nurses, it was like a wrestling match where people yell out things.
SARAH THUESEN:
Could you describe for me just in general what the frustrations were? What were people angry about at that point?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Staffing, staffing, staffing, staffing. That was the main thing. No respect, no respect for your life outside of the hospital, making you stay overtime, calling you in on your day off, pulling. Pulling was a big issue. You're working your unit and they pull you to another unit you've never worked before. And they tell you if you don't go, you get sent home and you'll be written up. It was about the money, but it really wasn't about the money. Nurses never said, "I want more money," and I think that's partly the problem. They didn't really respect themselves enough to say, "I deserve a better pay." But they did want respect for their profession and respect for them as people. Their main concerns were always with the patients. The staffing was number one. Then the other things, like the pulling and whatever, even though it threatened their license, their main fear was hurting someone, the dangers. It was just palpable the concerns and the fear and the frustration. So anyway, we had this huge nursing movement and we were not prepared. So we handed cards. We had planned on handing out cards. I think we ran out of cards. We just asked people to write down on a piece of paper which union they felt would best benefit. The Teamsters came out like ten cards over the Machinists. They were all pretty close. We also said, "Any nurse who wants to participate in pulling this together and helping us organize, meet at Carol's house tomorrow morning for breakfast." So we did that. I mean, we didn't know these other nurses from Adam. We had like fifteen nurses.
SARAH THUESEN:
And they came from all different hospitals?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Yeah, all different hospitals, all different disciplines, all different degrees of nursing. We had LPNs and that's one of the things different that we did. We included the LPNs, because KNA would not allow them in. Even the RNs said, "You know, they work side by side, but they do the exact same thing," except hang blood and at that time, I think, do IV, push drugs.
SARAH THUESEN:
And at that initial first big meeting, what was the—. Well, I should back up and say what was the general racial breakdown of the nursing staffs at most of the main hospitals in Louisville?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Very few black nurses.
SARAH THUESEN:
At that time?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Mmm hmm, and probably more now, but very few. Shirley King, who is African-American and she was at Carol's house, I'm pretty sure she was there. Those days were just like one big blur. I hardly got any sleep. It's like somebody putting fast forward on. I mean, it just happened so fast. It was just like being stunned. Pat Hardy, who's name later on changed and then I think she changed it back, she was there and she had just come off an eleven-to-seven and came to Carol's meeting at her house. By that time, at the end of the meeting, some of us stayed and even though the Teamsters came out ahead, we were just afraid that most nurses would think, "Teamsters, oh gee, truck drivers." Machinists were right behind them, so we go, "Machinists." So we invited them to this meeting and we told them that we wanted to remain—oh I know, we were trying to come up with a name for our organization and Pat Hardy came up, "NPO," because when a patient's in the hospital, they can't have anything by mouth, so there are stickers all over the hospital on patients. It means "Nothing by mouth." And she says, "We're tired of their pushing their agendas down our throats," so we named it Nurses Professional Organization, NPO. She did that on hardly any sleep, came up with that acronym for us. And we figured it would keep our nursing organization and the movement on people's minds when they see it all day long. So anyway, the Machinists promised us that they would bring in professional organizers to help us, assist us in organizing. The local people here were wonderful.