Kay Tillow: Civil Rights, Union Organizing Mark Decades of Activism

By Berry Craig for AFL-CIO Blog

Kay Tillow, a veteran union activist from Louisville, can inspire us all as we start the New Year. “Set a stout heart to a steep hillside” is an old Scottish proverb that reminds me of Tillow, who’s executive director of the Nurses Professional Organization. She and the NPO have spent 21 years battling to organize nurses who work for Louisville-based Norton Healthcare, Kentucky’s largest health care system.

Says Tillow: “The [National Labor Relations Board] has ruled in our favor time and again. But management has continued to threaten and intimidate nurses who want the union and we’ve never gotten recognition.”

Even so, Tillow refuses to give up. “This is a human rights issue to me.”

Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president, is one of Tillow’s biggest fans.

“Kay has worked tirelessly on behalf of nurses who have had to fight one of the most anti-union health care corporations in the nation. She’s a warrior for workers.”

Well past retirement age, Tillow has been a union organizer for going on 40 years.

“I can’t imagine living if I weren’t doing something to change things that are wrong.”

Born in Paducah, Ky., and reared in nearby Metropolis, Ill., she started helping right wrongs when she was a student at the University of Illinois. In 1963, Tillow took time out from classes to join the fight for equal rights for African Americans. She traveled south and signed up with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“Those were interesting times. The year before, I studied in Ghana where I met W.E.B. Du Bois. I confess I didn’t know he was an American who had helped found the NAACP.”

Tillow had joined the NAACP at her alma mater. “The civil rights movement was just starting, the freedom riders. It inspired a lot of us.”

The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists terrorized, beat up and even murdered civil rights volunteers like Tillow.

“Was I afraid? How could you be afraid when everybody else around you was so courageous? They were willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives.”

She fell in love and married Walter Tillow, another civil rights worker. The couple ultimately became union activists.

“A lot of the injustice African Americans were suffering was economic injustice. Unions have always fought economic injustice. So it made sense for us to work within the union movement.”

The Tillows became organizers for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) and Local 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. They won some organizing drives, and lost others. “But we never quit.”

Although she’s not a nurse, Tillow joined the NPO when it was affiliated with the Machinists (IAM). The National Nurses United (NNU) is NPO’s current affiliation. She also represents the NPO on the All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care, for which she is still campaigning. As she puts it: “Jesus healed and he did it for free.”

Tillow helped organize an IAM local at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, though hospital management ultimately broke the union. While the Lourdes union was short-lived, that organizing drive is special to Tillow.

“Lourdes used to be old Riverside Hospital—the hospital where I was born.”