Why unions matter for nursing

In recent years, organized labor participation has risen in the United States, with workers collectively negotiating for better wages and equitable working conditions. Nurses are organizing at a particularly high rate; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 20% belong to a collective bargaining unit, as compared to a national average of 13% across other professions.

A nurse seated at a work station in a large hospital room with patient beds.
Image: Amir Arabshahi on Unsplash

A new paper, “More than handmaids: Nursing, labor activism and feminism”, focuses on why nurses have committed so strongly to unions, providing nuanced insights into the relationships between nursing, feminism, and labor organizing from the firsthand perspectives of union nurses. As the study reveals, gendered norms and assumptions, along with a complicated relationship to past feminist movements, have resulted in ongoing labor organizing challenges in the profession.

Drawing on interviews with women nurses involved with the California Nurses Association (CNA) at Children's Hospital Oakland in Oakland, CA, the study grew out of conversations between Jessa Lingel, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, and Kim Branciforte, a registered nurse and nurse educator based in California, who also happens to be Lingel’s sister.

“Even before the pandemic, there was a shift in the longevity of nursing careers. Nurses are coming into the field later, as second and third careers, and leaving the bedside sooner for advanced practice positions, education, research, or leaving medicine entirely,” Branciforte says. “I felt desperate to capture even a glimmer of the sagacity of my colleagues.”

The researchers specifically interviewed nurses at the end of their careers, which allowed them to analyze participants’ experiences in relation to feminist politics. The second-wave movement, which began in the 1960s, emphasized gender equity in the workplace and urged women to leave traditionally “feminine” professions—for instance, encouraging women to become doctors instead of nurses. These discourses undervalued the work of women in feminized career paths, making them feel belittled.

“The nurses we interviewed came to the profession in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time when feminism was pushing women into fields that were historically dominated by men,” Lingel says. “Many of our participants felt disconnected from feminism, which saw nursing as conventionally feminized.”

Participants shared that local unions provided a sense of empowerment and opportunities for health justice advocacy in their workplace and communities. Traditional views of “feminized” occupations such as nursing emphasize self-sacrifice and humility, suggesting that women are innately compassionate and sympathetic, and therefore suited for this work—rather than centering professional skills and knowledge. Union work goes against such gendered expectations through demanding improved working conditions, professional respect, and increased autonomy. Activism within the CNA empowered the nurses to take action in their professional lives, defying gendered assumptions.

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.