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Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Motivated by a desire to leave an emotionally abusive marriage, Gemma Ziegler, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, became a nurse in the mid-1970s, determined to achieve economic independence for her and her children. She found a position at St. Joseph's Hospital, working the night shift in order to balance work with her childrearing responsibilities. By 1979, Ziegler had begun to grow aware of discriminatory working conditions for nurses, who were required not only to work long hours, but also to work in fields outside of their experience. At that time, Ziegler began to work actively with We're Involved in Nursing (WIN)—a group founded by Louisville nurse Carol King, who intended to form a nurses' union. Ziegler describes how she began to work closely with King in order to recruit nurses to the causes, noting the enthusiastic response of Louisville nurses despite staunch opposition and threats from hospital administrators. In the early 1980s, however, the growing recession resulted in a loss of momentum in the efforts of WIN to garner support and it wasn't until the late 1980s that a renewed interest in organization re-emerged full force with the formation of the Nurses Professional Organization (NPO). Ziegler describes her role in the founding of NPO and explains that the fledgling organization decided to ally themselves with the Machinists Union, which offered to help them organize in order to hold an election for recognition of their union. At that time, Kay Tillow moved to Louisville as a representative of the Machinists; Ziegler worked closely with her leading up to the election, which fell short of ratification by eleven votes. Ziegler attributes the failed election to growing tensions between the NPO and the Machinists. Throughout the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, Ziegler continued to work closely with the NPO in its struggle to earn recognition and better working conditions for nurses. In so doing, she focuses on their exhaustive efforts to document poor working conditions and discrimination against nurses, national media recognition of their efforts, and their failed effort to achieve a negotiating contract with North Healthcare (the city's primary healthcare employer). In addition, Ziegler discusses how issues related to gender created obstacles for the NPO, the impact of and causes of a nursing shortage, and the importance of advocating for disempowered groups.
    Excerpts
  • Decision to pursue a career in nursing and managing as a single mother
  • Organizing nurses for WIN
  • Revived interest in organizing nurses and the founding of the NPO
  • Failed NPO election of 1989 and tensions with the Machinists
  • Effort to block a city bond for Norton Healthcare
  • Reasons for the nurse shortage and gathering information about working conditions
  • Role of gender in nurses' ability to organize
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  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.