Title: Oral History Interview with Kay Tillow, June 23, 2006. Interview U-0180.
Interviewer: Thuesen, Sarah
Interviewee: Tillow, Kay
Abstract: Kay Tillow was raised in Paducah, Kentucky, during the 1940s and 1950s before she moved to Illinois to attend college. While a student, Tillow became interested in issues of social justice. After spending a year abroad in Ghana, Tillow returned to the United States to finish her education. In the early 1960s, Tillow went south to participate in the civil rights struggle, volunteering with SNCC. Shortly thereafter, she began to focus on labor activism, working with coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky, an experience she describes here. In the late 1970s, Tillow (along with her husband) worked for the United Electrical Workers and the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (Local 1199) in Pennsylvania. Tillow returned to Kentucky in 1988, in part because she believed that the South played an especially crucial role in the labor movement. She spent one year working for the International Association of Machinists in her hometown of Paducah before she moved to Louisville to help the Machinists in their sponsorship of the newly formed Nurses Professional Organization (NPO). Tillow describes her work with the NPO, including her close working relationship with Gemma Zeigler. She explains the obstacles they faced in organizing nurses and their narrow defeat in the 1989 election. Tillow continued to work closely with the NPO throughout the 1990s up to the time of the interview in 2006. After the failed election in 1989, the NPO severed its ties with the Machinists, forming an affiliation with the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). She describes how the NPO shifted its attention to achieving bargaining power with hospitals and the primary healthcare system in Louisville as it traded hands from Humana, Inc., to Columbia/NCA to Norton Healthcare, Inc. In addition, she discusses in detail the varied working conditions nurses and healthcare providers faced, focusing especially on discriminatory practices and administrative harassment against union activists. The interview concludes with Tillow's discussion of how the labor movement fit more broadly into what she calls a "human rights movement," and she reflects on her hopes that the nurses in Louisville would eventually succeed in their efforts to organize.