The Boundaries of Taft-Hartley: Hospital Nurses’ Work Control in the 1970s and the Politics of Workplace Distinction

Pablo Gaston, University of Michigan

This paper examines the formation workplace boundaries. Sociologists increasingly see boundary-making processes as political, rooted in institutions and state processes. Most conceptualizations of how politics shape the boundaries between workers thus center on state power and on elite political projects—state actors, employers, and leaders of formal associations. This article argues that workers and their organizations actively shape boundaries, particularly where they attempt to assert control over their work. Building on theories of class formation and professional projects, I argue that boundaries are shaped by boundary projects that are rooted in ground-level strategies for work control. I address these questions through a historical investigation of a period of conflict over worker boundaries. In 1974, amendments to the NLRA expanded its purview to cover the employees of non-profit hospitals. Where collective bargaining existed in hospitals, the established occupational boundaries reflected the unique workplace structure of the hospital, and the cultural traditions of professionalism. Among Registered Nurses, the dominant gendered professionalization project erected vertical boundaries, demarcating nursing from other occupations and incorporating a cross-class coalition of women. The 1974 reforms thrust that structure onto a collision course with the boundary conceptualizations established under the law, premised on horizontal boundaries separating supervisors and employees. According to dominant institutional theories, this policy change should have produced two effects: first, it should have brought nurses’ boundary conceptualizations into alignment with the horizontal boundaries privileged under the law. Second, it should have constituted an opportunity for mobilization and growth for advocates of collective bargaining in the 1970s. This paper shows that these expected outcomes were stymied by political rupture within organized nursing, rooted in nurses’ persistent, gendered boundary projects. This case shows how boundary conceptualizations were driven by local struggles for work control, between factions of nurses and between associations and employers.

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 Presented in Session 171. Labor and the Law