There have been two trends within the physician housestaff movement: increased acceptance of collective bargaining and unions, and a shift from narrower economic to broader political demands, including some involving patient care. Case studies of politically active housestaff associations in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are used to examine the emergence of “patient-care” demands and their compatibility with collective bargaining frameworks. As house-staff have become principal providers of care to indigent populations in public hospitals, and economic cutbacks have endangered service as well as the positions of physicians, patient-care demands arise and become infused with demands for participation and control in decision-making. Common factors in the politicization of housestaff have been the contribution of activists of the sixties as leaders, and the impact of fiscal crisis and economic retrenchment in the seventies.

However, the emergence and resolution of these issues has differed, depending upon legal, political, historical, and organizational variations. In general, patient-care issues are supported by housestaff when they dovetail with housestaff interests. However, physician interests can diverge from those of patients, as in the case of manpower redistribution. On the whole, wages and benefits have done better than educational or patient-care demands. Educational demands have met with counterattack, and patient care, limited by the traditional scope of collective bargaining, has had to evolve indirectly, and has been hurt by long-term economic trends. Finally, national housestaff organization is limited by the wide-ranging politics and ideas of diverse regional organizations which represent different types of training institutions and career orientations.

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