In my dissertation and current book project, A Caring Class: Labor Contention and the Moral Economy of Care in California Hospitals, I examine the impact of moral conceptions of caring on collective bargaining patterns in hospitals from the post-war years through the consolidation of market-driven healthcare in the 1990s. Building on primary archival data, the project explains the emergence of ‘a caring class,’ a group workers who engaged in class-antagonistic collective action, but who defined themselves by their moral obligation to care. In the post-war hospital, many found the notion of hospital workers joining unions and striking as a violation of their sacred duty to care. But by the 1990s, hospital workers’ unions were increasingly powerful, growing while other unions shrank; hospital workers had come to understand the exercise of coercive economic power in the workplace not as a violation of their calling to care, but as a defense of their moral obligations against uncaring capital. At the heart of this change, I argue, lies what I call ‘the moral economy of care,’ the set of normative frameworks that defined both the meaning of care work and the legitimate exercise of power.
This project brings theories of class formation to bear on current debates in economic sociology surrounding the cultural underpinnings of markets and economic behavior. While many classical approaches assume an inherent conflict between moral and economic logics of action, a growing literature has shown how ideas and moral injunctions shape economic activities. I show how, in the case of care workers movements, an opposition between moral obligation and instrumental action was a cultural product, and a key persistent feature of the ‘moral economy of care.’ I show that its persistence was rooted in how different occupational groups pragmatically used the cultural antinomy to negotiate collective identities, to define the boundaries between groups and the fault lines of industrial conflict, to develop and justify everyday acts of resistance, and to adjust to changes in labor law.
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Labor Research Action Network, and the UC California Studies Consortium.
Please contact me for samples or to discuss the project.
Changing forms of labor conflict in the neoliberal economy
Unions exercise power in profoundly different ways than they once did. One key transformation is the broad reorientation of labor contention away from the workplace and toward other social arenas, a reorientation indicated by the decline of the strike and the growing salience of community coalitions and corporate campaigns in contemporary union organizing. Beyond A Caring Class, much of my research has focused on issues related to the theorization and measurement of this reorientation of labor contention.
Photo: Nurses with the Alameda County Nurses Guild, United Public Workers-CIO, sign their first collective bargaining agreement with Kaiser Permanente. The Nurses' Guild was a group of Oakland and Berkeley nurses who had disaffiliated from the California State Nurses' Association, and whose activism triggered a wave of organizing among nurses in the Bay Area in the post-war years. Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources Collection.