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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 >>

Effort to block a city bond for Norton Healthcare

Here, Ziegler discusses the efforts of the Nurses Professional Organization (NPO) to block the City Commissioner's decision to provide bond money to Norton Healthcare, Inc. around 2000. According to Ziegler, the NPO petitioned the Commissioners to refuse to issue the bond money unless Norton agreed to negotiate with the NPO for better contracts with nurses. Their efforts failed and Ziegler recalls the incident as a devastating blow to morale.

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

Well after that, the hospital refused to have another election and they were not wanting to negotiate anything on these other nurses, dragging their feet on everything. And Norton was wanting some bond money from the city. Are you familiar with this story?
SARAH THUESEN:
Yes, well John Cumbler filled me in on the basic details, but you could tell me a little more.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
They wanted bond money to do whatever with it. I don't know what they wanted to do with it. I can't remember now. But they were going to the city for millions of dollars. Kay was the one who saw it in the paper that they were going for bond money and she said, "We need to go after them on this. We need to go to those hearings. We need to put pressure on them. We need to talk." She had it all organized. We talked to AFSCME or someone at the AFL-CIO. They sent down this wonderful lawyer who helped us put it all together, can't think of his name, a young African-American guy, very nice-looking, smart, just brilliant. He worked with us, but the original idea to go after this was Kay. We needed one more vote and Darryl Owens, who's African-American, we talked with him and he was leaning toward us. We found out later from someone who works in his office that Ron Reliford came in and told him not to vote for us.
SARAH THUESEN:
Do you know why he would have done that?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
I think he hated us because we got—I think he was just jealous. It's a terrible thing. We had heard he said, and his girlfriend—
SARAH THUESEN:
Reliford's girlfriend?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Reliford's girlfriend, who was in AFSCME, she was so hateful to us. She hated us. I was in a regular Louisville Central Labor Council meeting and she told me, I can't remember. She came up to me and said, what dis she say to me? It was really nasty. I can't remember now. She was just vicious and she was on AFSCME payroll, too. Every union president, every union organizer, whenever we had a demonstration, at one time or another, they always showed up. He never showed up unless it was right before it was ready to close. He'd say, "Oh, I was running late. I couldn't be here," but generally, he didn't show up at all. He had no presence, no support. A couple of his members, his men that were in that org—, and one woman, they were very supportive, but he as a leader was not there for us and we knew it. We knew in our hearts that's what happened, but we didn't have any proof of it until, I think he since has retired, and someone who worked in Darryl Owens office told Kay that she saw the letter that he had written to him.
SARAH THUESEN:
Just to clarify what that city council—had the city and county merged at that point?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
No.
SARAH THUESEN:
Okay, so it was a city council vote, right?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Yeah. What were they called? They weren't called city council. I can't remember what they were called.
SARAH THUESEN:
The commissioners?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Commissioners.
SARAH THUESEN:
Okay. You were wanting—
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Them to hold off the money until they agreed to negotiate—
SARAH THUESEN:
An election or to hold an election?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
No, to negotiate contracts with us. We said, "Forget the election. They violated the rights. We can never have an election there again. We want a contract and if they want that money from the city, then they should negotiate with the nurses." We needed one more vote, one more vote, and we had the other votes, excerpt for Irv Maze. He said he would and he turned on us.
SARAH THUESEN:
Do you remember comments that were made by any of the city commissioners at the time about why they wanted to support Norton and give them the money they were requesting?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
First, Irv Maze told us that we couldn't stop it, it was a done deal. He told us that to our face. So we go out and do research and it wasn't a done deal. It had to pass all the commission. But I think he was trying to get us out of his office and we'd go home with our tail between our legs and not come back. Well, we researched it. It had to go before the whole committee, so it wasn't a done deal. He lied to us. One that supported us was Russ Maple. He supported us. He felt it was the ethical thing to do, since they violated our rights so egregiously, that they should negotiate with us. There were, was it three commissioners? I think it was three commissioners. Isn't that awful? You're going to think I'm really stupid, but I swear—it wasn't that long ago.
SARAH THUESEN:
It's easy to forget details like that. Was the general feeling that among the folks who wanted to support Norton, or the general argument, that everything needed to be done to support them since they're providing so many jobs in the city?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
No, Irv Maze, he never said anything like that to us. Our mayor, who's supposed to be the union mayor, at one time we went to see him about another issue. A group of nurses went, me and Kay, and he told us that we need to distance ourselves from the union. We would get more support if we distanced ourselves from the union. Our mayor told us that.
SARAH THUESEN:
Wow.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
He said, "You need to get someone like Kathy Mershon to represent you." At that time, Kathy Mershon was a top dog in Humana. She was like the top nurse. She was the vice president of nursing at Humana. It was like here we are, union people, and he's telling us we need to distance ourselves from the union, that, "You're not going to get public sympathy," is what he told us. This is the mayor who gets tons of money. I'll tell you another one, Steve Henry. Steve Henry, oh, he'd come to our meetings. He was running for office and wanted our support. Let's see. He ran for lieutenant governor. He's physician and he's an orthopedic physician down at University. The nurses came and told us that he told them not to sign union cards, that the union wasn't a good thing to have in the hospital. So they came and told us. So Kay and I are at a meeting at the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council and Steve Henry's speaking to the union members. I wanted to raise my hand and confront him then, but out of respect for the other union people and I think Kay was afraid I was going to do it, I waited until he left. And I followed him out of the meeting and Kay was, we went out of the meeting. I got him by the front doors away from the meeting and I said to him, "I heard you say—." "Oh, I never said that." I said, "Well, we have some very strong union nurses who are honest, hard-working women who said you told them that." "I never said that. Oh, I never said that." I said, "You'll never get a vote from me again. How do you have the audacity to come here, try to get a union vote, and then talking out both sides of your mouth?" Well, I had no use for him. He got all red in the face and left. I didn't realize there was no much politics in unions and all of that. You know, if there wasn't the fighting amongst each other, we'd be successful. Just like Ron Reliford, it would have brought his local, those people, with the numbers it would have made everything better. He wanted to hold onto that power. I think he thought our union would be much bigger than his and we would overpower his. It's a power thing. I'm not concerned about power. I've never been concerned about power except empowering nurses to be able to deliver the care. So that's the other reason why I believe Norton would have—. They needed the money for the project. I can't remember what the project was, but it was already ready to go. They were just waiting on the money. If Ron Reliford hadn't done that, we may have a contract. So those are the two incidents where our own union—. You know, with the hospitals we know our enemy. They're easy to fight if you know the enemy, but it's hard to fight them when you don't know. It was very disheartening for me. I kind of gave up after that. I thought, "Why just keep on?" It took a lot out of me, it really did. All those years and your own people do it to you.