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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 >>

Failed NPO election of 1989 and tensions with the Machinists

Ziegler discusses the first (failed) election of the Nurses Professional Organization (NPO) in 1989. Having determined to ally themselves with the Machinists Union, NPO had started to organize with the help of labor activist Kay Tillow. Ziegler discusses her close working relationship with Tillow and focuses on growing tensions between the NPO and the Machinists, as well as growing tensions between Machinist representatives Tillow and Warren Mart. According to Ziegler, those tensions were largely responsible for the very narrow defeat of the NPO in its first election.

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 this was the first election campaign?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
This was the first election. We were going great guns. We had committees in each unit. We had team leaders, co-team leaders. They were strong. They were taking on management. There are so many stories I could tell you how they took management on in meetings and stood up. Soffia took a cartoon around. It showed a man in a hospital bed with bandages on him and his leg up. One of the nurses had drawn it and put, "Poor Bill Heburn." He was an administrator. "The nurses beat up on him so bad in the meeting, he had to be hospitalized." And stuff like that. Seriously, I mean, we were just winning like crazy. So right before, I guess, I don't remember the dates again; Kay probably will. Kay likes to get, I think, around seventy percent cards signed, seventy-five percent cards signed. We were like at sixty-five, sixty-six, and I guarantee you she'll remember the exact number. I don't remember that anymore. Warren comes and tells us—oh wait a minute. Back up, back up, back up. About six weeks before this, Carol King jumps ship. She had a run-in with the other organizer. I think he was having sex with one of the people on her committee and she was married and it was getting around the hospital. And she said, "It's just getting a bad reputation." It was in a ballfield somewhere where they had just had a union meeting. I mean, she was just like, "This is just going to destroy our reputation." It was something like that. I know it had to do with sex and one of the people on her committee. And I think she had it in with him. Then Carol jumps, never called me. She jumped ship and was telling people, "Don't vote for the union." From the very beginning, I could see the men who had Our Lady of Peace and Suburban, they hated Kay. In our meetings at the union, I could see that. They never did it to me. I had a run-in with Warren Mart one time. I'll tell you about that. But other than that, they never did it to me, but they always did Kay, because she was on the payroll. I was a volunteer. Any of her ideas, they would put it down. Anybody with half a brain could see her ideas were much better than theirs. And Kay and I haven't always seen eye to eye, but she knows what she's doing. You have to recognize that. So anyway, Warren comes to us when we're at about sixty-five percent and says, "Our Lady of Peace and Suburban are ready to go to an election." Kay said, "No, they can't be." He said, "Yes. They said they've got seventy-five percent of the cards." She said, "Warren, they do not." He said, "Well, that's what they told me." Do you know how unions do the charts?
SARAH THUESEN:
Sort of.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
You put the unit, like ICU, you list all the nurses, the shifts they work, and then as you get their cards signed, you yellow them out. When you get all yellow, you can look at the chart. Well, Kay had been noticing, she's very astute, that their charts were getting yellowed awfully quickly. She knew they hadn't been doing that well. And we had been getting tons of press through all of this. They were calling us and anytime there was a nursing story, they would call us. The TV stations would be there. It was just all the time. Every week, it was like we were on television all the time. We were handing things out and doing demonstrations. Let me think. So one night after he told us that, he said, "You've got to be ready to go with Audubon." She said, "Warren, we only have sixty-five percent." He says, "In two weeks, you have to be ready." So when everybody left, she and I came back and we got into their drawers and counted their cards. They only had like fifty percent. They did not have anywhere near what they needed. They were lying. Kay tried to tell that to Warren. He would not listen, threatened to fire her.
SARAH THUESEN:
Why do you think he was trying to—
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
I don't think he knew. I think they were buddies. They had come up through the ranks together. They covered each other's back. Kay was an outsider they brought in and he wouldn't question them. I don't think he wanted to see it fail. And I think it's because she was a woman. I hate to say it. One other thing happened. I was at home one morning getting ready for work and they were all staying at the Holiday Inn. Kay and all the other Machinists from out of town were staying at the Holiday Inn in hotel rooms. She called me. She used to ride into work everyday with Warren. Well, they picked up the newspaper and a newspaper reporter had called me because there was a nursing decision by the Kentucky Board of Nursing about a nursing issue. He had called me and asked me my opinion on it, so I told him what my opinion was on it. I've never had any problem with the press, never misquoted me, always had a good relationship with them. If I tell them something to investigate, they always did really well. So anyway, Kay said they were down getting coffee and Warren sees where I talked to the newspaper. He lit into Kay, "She talked to the newspaper without going through me? That better not ever happen. You tell her she's not allowed to talk to the newspaper. That better not ever happen again. All PR goes through me." So I'm home. I got out of the shower and my hair is wet. Kay calls me crying. He has threatened her job if she lets it happen again. I said, "Kay, calm down. What's going on?" So she told me. I couldn't get dressed fast enough to get to the NPO. I went flying into his office: "I'm going to tell you something." I said, "Don't you ever, ever try to tell me who I can talk to, when I can talk." I said, "My husband doesn't tell me and no man, nobody is ever going to." So I lit into him. He goes, "Oh Gemma, Gemma. I didn't mean that. I swear to God, I didn't mean that. Kay misinterpreted me." He never said anything else to Kay about it and he never said anything to me. Kay said to him, she goes, "Gemma has the best rapport with the press. You're stupid if you don't put her in charge of PR." And I did. I don't know why, but I really had a good rapport, and Carol King did too. I think it's because we're local people or loco. Kay had no choice and then she had to try to, because she'd been telling the nurses all along, "We don't go until seventy-five percent." So she had to present it to the leadership of the nurses, like thirty or forty nurses, why we were going at sixty-five percent and try not to knock the union down. Because Kay is not one, this is why you're probably not going to hear this story or the other one I'm going to tell you, because she doesn't like to knock the union in front of anybody. But I think the unions need to hear this so they know what they need to do to straighten it up, because that's why they're losing. It's the back-biting and the one-upmanship and all the other stuff they do. So here's the worst part. Kay had no say in talking to the NLRB people. They wouldn't let her do any of that and it's our campaign. So we're lucky they let us go and Kay had promised the nurses all along, "This is your election. When we got to the NLRB, we all go up there together to file for the election. Anybody who wants to go, we go, we do this. We are together on all of this." So Warren goes, "You're crazy. I'm not taking all those people." She says, "Warren, I've told them they can go." He didn't want to take anybody. And she wanted us all to go into the meetings with the NLRB. Well, they go in there. We sit in an outside room and Warren wouldn't let the nurses. I didn't care if I went. It's not my election. The nurses, the leadership should have been in there to know what's going on. Kay went in and Warren was agreeing to throw in respiratory therapy, physical therapy, x-ray technicians. It was like, Kay knows the number again, probably a hundred and twenty more people. And we didn't have them. We haven't been organizing them. We're only doing nurses. He agrees to this stipulation. They had a break. I'm in the bathroom. Kay comes in sobbing. She goes, "Gemma, all our hard work's gone down the drain." I said, "Kay, we'll organize them. We'll just blitz and we'll organize them." And we just worked around the clock, but you can't get that many people and the election was set for two weeks. Oh, and the reason we went, because we knew that Our Lady of Peace and Suburban were going to lose. We couldn't let them go to election before us. So I mean, it was just hell. It was hell. Here we put months of our lives and our energy and these nurses are depending on us, and here it's being all screwed up by people who are going to pack their bags and leave when it's over. Oh, my God. It was awful. It was just awful. And we had to kind of protect the nurses. We didn't want them to panic and freak out. It was just a horrible situation.
SARAH THUESEN:
Why did they add in these other groups of workers?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
The management wanted it and Kay told him, "We don't have them." He goes, "Well, it's not that big a group." She says, "Warren, I only have," I think it was sixty-five percent. Like I told you, she'll know the exact number and she'll probably be able to tell you everybody who signed a card. And he said, "Well, this way we'll get the stipulated meeting." He would not listen to her. So we went to the election and lost eleven.
SARAH THUESEN:
Eleven votes?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Eleven votes.
SARAH THUESEN:
Wow.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Eleven votes. It wasn't the hospital that did it to us. I mean, they did their dirty anti-union stuff. But it was the union that brought us down on that one. We would have won. Of course, Suburban lost hugely as well as Our Lady of Peace. They just barely, I think they got like thirty-three percent or something like that. Again, Kay will know. It was horrible and we were devastated. It was amazing. When the nurses came in, they were crying because they had lost. They were coming in going, "We're going to go again. We're going to go again."