Employers of the 19th century easily justified the policing of the moral and social behavior of their workers by arguing that they were engaged in a larger social mission by magically giving birth to solid character traits and law abiding citizens. Such rules governing the workplace were accompanied by long hours of toil which served as a protective shield against the curse of idleness, intemperance, gambling, violence and other assorted undesirable personal and social behaviors.

Employers from this perspective served a larger social mission of social control and character formation and readily won the backing of the clergy. Further, such surveillance produced an orderly, disciplined and predictable workforce essential to generating profit and the wealth of the nation. This formula of worker discipline and control which served a wider social good provided employers with a clear path to demand subservience and reinforced the prevailing idea that government should remain aloof from interfering with the natural, self-regulating, economic  “laws” of of the universe.

It was a win-win formula for all. This “industrial morality” in which employers viewed themselves as custodians of individual and civic virtue could be counted among labor’s litany of indignities.

A few examples from the past provide a glimpse of “industrial morality” in Maine workplaces.

Rules governing textile workers in Maine declared “It is expected that all persons in the employment of the Company, will be regular in their attendance upon public worship on the Sabbath,” and “Those intending to leave the Company, are to give their overseers at least two weeks notice of that intention. Those who leave contrary to this regulation, cause of sickness excepted, will not be entitled to pay or regular discharge.” (i.e., subject to “dishonorable discharge” or “blacklisted.”) This provision did wonders in  preventing spontaneous work stoppages.

The granite cutters might be required to pay a tax to support a church which was often a condition of employment. Workers complained that the tax was levied even when no church services were offered and the money was retained by the employers for their own  purposes. The granite workers might also be prohibited from reading newspapers or voting for candidates deemed offensive to their employers.

The work rules governing many shoe workers in Maine stated “All hands are expected to conduct themselves in an orderly way and workmanlike manner and in the work-rooms during working hours to refrain from unnecessary talk, story-telling, argument, discussion and profanity, and to recollect that the work-room is not the place, nor are working hours the time for wrestling, boxing, playing tag, or social visiting.” Work rules also stated “Damage will be charged for cases passed with shoes out or damaged, and for inferior work or mistakes.” Socializing in the workplace which might prove compatible in small craft shops where work rhythms readily mixed with socializing, yielded to new habits of work required by industrialization in the way of regimentation, coordination and synchronization, of the movements of workers. Workers were also obligated to pay for their own tacks, pegs, and needles, and were fined a weeks wages if they left their places without providing a weeks notice, Again, a means of creating character traits in workers and inducing compliance to employer rules of the workplace.

Nurses in the late 19th century were not exempt from a species of “industrial morality.” In addition to caring for their 50 patients, each bedside nurse was required to follow these regulations:

• “Daily sweep and mop the floors of your ward, dust the patient’s furniture and window sills.”

• “Maintain an even temperature in your ward by bringing in a scuttle of coal for the day’s business.”

• “Light is important to observe the patient’s condition. Therefore, each day fill kerosene lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.”

• “The nurses notes are important in aiding your physician’s work. Make your pens carefully; you may whittle nibs to your individual taste.”

• “Each nurse on day duty will report every day at 7 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m., except on the Sabbath, on which day she will be off from 12 noon to 2 p.m.”

• “Graduate nurses in good standing with the Director of Nurses will be given an evening off each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if you go regularly to church.”

• “Each nurse should lay aside from her pay a goodly sum of her earnings for her benefits during her declining years, so that she will not become a burden. For example, if you earn $30 a month you should set aside $15.”

• “Any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done at a beauty shop or frequents dance halls will give the Director of Nurses good reason to suspect her worth, intentions and integrity.”

• “The nurse who performs her labor, serves her patients and doctors faithfully and without fault for a period of three years will be given an increase by the hospital administration of five cents a day, providing there are no hospital debts that are outstanding.”

In the 1970s, professional associations, including nurses, transformed themselves into collective bargaining entities. In Maine, an early expression of a nascent militancy among nurses was reflected in the position taken by the Maine Nurses Association in the winter of 1967 when they adopted a “no-strike” policy. In taking that stance, however, they were quick to point out that by voluntarily relinquishing the use of the strike, they declared that their action “imposes upon employers of nurses an increased obligation to recognize and deal justly with nurses through their authorized representatives in matters affecting employment situations.”

In short order, the nurses  reinforced their stance by action.

In 1975 the voices of  Bangor nurses could be heard shouting “For too long, the registered nurses at the Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) have been frustrated with their inability to function at the level for which they have been prepared. Therefore, these registered professional nurses feel that now is the time to take a positive and progressive step forward by joining together to form a collective bargaining unit; a first for the State of Maine; The primary purpose, “quality patient are.”

In March 1976, the registered nurses of the EMMC, by a vote of 114 to 100 decided to accept the MSNA as its collective bargaining unit. It was the first such election held in the state since employees at non-profit hospitals came under the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

The reform-oriented nurses, losing nothing of their intrinsic value as “Angels of Mercy,” had clearly snapped stereotypical images and the manacles of the guardian “industrial morality” which militant labor leaders considered euphemisms for exploitation.

Today, the coronavirus which has spawned universal fear and pain, has ignited a global renaissance of appreciation and respect for the intrinsic meaning and mission of the “Angels of Mercy ”

Charles A. Scontras is a historian and research assistant for the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine.


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