Labor Conflict and Moral Contention: Nurse Organizing and the Corporatization of Care
Professional nurse organizations have historically been broadly ambivalent toward the strike. Nurses’ early organization within professional associations shaped how they engaged in workplace-centered conflict; this organizational history and ongoing collective claims to professional status kept nurses from striking for their first two decades of collective bargaining, even as many nurses themselves were becoming increasingly militant. I argue that the tensions, contradictions and compromises of the early era of nurse organizing—particularly the tension between “professional” patient-care obligations and the use of economic coercion—helped produce a set of practices that would prove helpful in later conflicts, practices that would later spread to the more traditional core of the American labor movement.
Using a broad variety of archival sources, this paper examines these processes by focusing on two organizations—the California Nurses Association and the American Nurses Association—during three key periods. First, 1944-7, when California nurses implemented the first collective bargaining program focused on professional nurses, which then spread to the national level. The second period is 1966-8, when California nurses first defied the Association’s strike ban, leading to a wave of nurses strikes. Culminating in the late 1980s, during the ascendance of managed care, I argue that the broader crisis of confidence in corporate healthcare at the time made these practices uniquely effective against hospital employers.