9 to 5 Made a Difference

Ideas and Issues Women Workers

Pearl RiverIn 1973, fifty years ago, ten young women working in various capacities as clerical workers at Harvard University in the Boston area came together to talk about issues on their jobs.  The complaints flew fast and furious in those days when clericals were almost always women, and bosses were almost always men.  Getting coffee was a common complaint, but that was just one item on the list that included getting gifts for bosses’ wives, sewing buttons and repairing clothing, sometimes while the boss was still wearing them, taking dry cleaning out, and more serious complaints about constant sexual harassment, invisibility, and substandard, gender-based pay scales.  Out of those conversations came an organization known formally as 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, since 1983.

Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of that founding, I talked to one of the co-founders, Ellen Cassedy, about that time and her book, Working 9 to 5:  A Woman’s Movement, A Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie, on Wade’s World.  Ellen had been one of the first staff members to emerge from this assembly of sisters.  Realizing the work ahead of them, they proposed that she go to Chicago to be trained in some organizing skills at the Midwest Academy, a training center founded by Heather Booth in 1973 as well.  As Ellen writes and tells the story, she was a neophyte facing the challenges assigned to her, but working closely with the other members, including Karen Nussbaum, a driving force in the developing leadership of the organization and the movement, she thrived in the job and carried the weight including representing the organization in Washington.

So many of Ellen’s stories reminded me of my early organizing days in welfare rights in the late 60s and then ACORN, I founded in 1970.  One was the unwillingness for working women – including many of the amazingly strong women leaders in ACORN and NWRO – who were careful to say they were not feminists, based on their perception of that movement, even as they were militant firebrands in every way imaginable.  Ellen was clear that diversifying the 9-to-5 base racially was also an important issue for the organization, which they largely only began to accomplish as the organization expanded out of Boston into other cities.

9-to-5 was certainly known in the early days especially for its zany tactics, public shaming of targets, and fantastic press coverage, but we also talked about an excerpt from the book in the current issue of Social Policy where she wrote about their strategy in developing organization in the banking and insurance sector.  They focused on three elements: (1) government pressure, (2) creating safe space for women’s voices and as whistleblowers, and (3) employing public embarrassment.  They were hearty and upfront, recycling stories heard, often on the down-low from women workers into leaflets and newsletters that they passed out in front of giant, multi-story workplaces, like John Hancock Insurance.  

Jane Fonda may have made their work famous with her movie and Dolly Parton with her music, but Ellen was clear that the real accomplishment was collective action by women workers, not “leaning in”.  In 1981, they affiliated much of their work with the Service Employees International Union, becoming District 925 and then Local 925, which continues, but their strongest legacy may be their role in leading the way to policy changes for women around equal pay, sexual harassment, and other issues.  

Ellen Cassedy, Karen Nussbaum, Kim Cook, Ellen Bravo, Day Creamer, and so many, many others broke the ground and paved the way.  9-to-5 made a difference, not just for working women, but for all of us!