Demanding appropriate compensation and respectable working conditions offends a culture that has been conditioned to view these (mainly female) caretakers as tireless, selfless servants.
In addition to demanding better compensation and working conditions, the more than 15,000 nurses in Minnesota who went on a three-day strike this week are also fighting for public support, particularly when it becomes increasingly clear that patients will die without them.
Americans are ill-equipped to understand the gravity of the current issue, which has already driven previous nurse strikes before this week’s walkout. This is because of a century’s worth of romantic babble about nursing as altruistic women’s job.
The background can help us comprehend why nurses, in contrast to employees at Amazon.com or Starbucks Corporation, must battle decades-old sexist beliefs that have denigrated them for being anything other than diligent, selfless carers.
When women volunteered to care for injured Confederate troops during the Civil War, the modern nursing profession was born. In the decades that followed the end of the war, these initial female forays into medicine paved the door for more formal nurse training programs.
These new initiatives had a sole focus on educating women. Despite the fact that men had also worked as nurses during the Civil War, practically all of the new schools did not admit males. Nursing was now a woman’s profession.
Usually, hospitals would build classrooms close by for their female patients. These women lived as dependents in dormitories that were run like convents while receiving the majority of their training on the job in the hospitals while working for free as students.
After two or three years, these trainee nurses completed their course of study, and the majority entered the private nursing field, providing care to patients in the privacy of their own homes. Since students performed the majority of the work at hospitals, very few people chose to work there full-time.
This arrangement contributed to the public’s conception of nursing as less of a traditional occupation and career and more of a selfless calling akin to parenting. In fact, a lot of people quit their careers after getting married and having kids.
Strikes were uncommon. The use of sporadic, unpaid student labor reduced the amount of militancy. The fact that there were approximately 2000 nursing schools in the country by 1929 also contributed to the surplus of labor. 10% of female workers in several cities during this time period identified nursing as their profession.
During the Great Depression, when the majority of families could no longer afford private nursing, all of this fell apart. By eliminating failing institutions and reducing enrollment, professional associations, in notably the American Nurses’ Association (ANA), attempted to solve the issue. A drive to get hospitals to engage former private nurses as part of their permanent workforce was equally significant.
With this change, nursing is now much more comparable to other professions. But the ANA persisted in upholding the idea that nurses should be charitable, altruistic individuals. It argued that “an arbitrary limitation on the hours of work violates the whole spirit of nursing” in 1933 when it rejected the eight-hour workweek.
This antiquated belief was put to the test by the emergence of a permanent cadre of overworked, underpaid hospital nurses. The first significant nursing strikes occurred in hospitals in New York and New Jersey in 1937, suggesting the possibility of widespread unionization.
The ANA and its supporters fought these developments once more. The struggle for fair working conditions and financial security puts the nurse’s role as a professional and comforter “in fundamental contradiction,” according to an editorial that appeared in the American Journal of Nursing in 1938. Or, to put it succinctly, “A nurses’ union would be almost, if not quite, as ludicrous as a mothers’ union,” according to one ANA statement.
Therefore, state organizations took the lead in 1942 when World War II put an unprecedented amount of burden on nurses, with the California State Nursing Association at the forefront. The organization took on the role of California’s nurses’ collective bargaining agent and was successful in getting them a salary increase.
The idea of nurses engaging in collective bargaining through state associations was reluctantly accepted in the postwar era, in large part because the ANA believed it to be preferable to the other option, unionization.
Then, in 1947, Congress further complicated matters by unintentionally excluding non-profit employees, including many hospital employees, from the right to engage in collective bargaining. Additionally, nurses were not eligible for disability benefits, minimum wage regulations, or unemployment insurance as a result of the Taft-Hartley Act.
It was challenging to improve nurses’ inferior position. The typical nurse, in the minds of the general public, was a young, attractive lady who worked briefly before getting married and having children. It was more of a calling than a job.
In fact, more women and some men are choosing nursing as their lifetime profession.
Even though surveys from the time found that just 29% of Americans agreed that nurses should be able to strike, a series of nursing strikes in the late 1960s eventually opened the door to altering the Taft-Hartley Act. By 1974, Congress had given nurses working in non-profit institutions the right to collectively negotiate.
Since then, nursing has evolved into a much more traditional profession and is drawing more men and women to the field. but insufficient to meet the demand for the work.
More strikes, like the one in Minnesota, are increasingly occurring as a result of a lack of personnel and unpleasant working circumstances. It could be tempting to try to compel nurses back to work given that lives are at stake.
But if the nursing shortage continues, the sad truth is that patients will still pass away. And to change that, a lot more than appealing to fictional Florence Nightingales will be needed, including a considerable increase of nursing schools, hospital subsidies, and other forms of financial aid.