9to5: The Story of a Movement

by Cindy Cole

9to5: The Story of a Movement is a new documentary celebrating the building of a feminist organization for better pay, respect, and good working conditions.  9to5, the Association of Working Women, began at Harvard University when a few secretaries began organizing clerical workers.

In the early 1970s the workplace for women was quite different from today.  Even college educated women were expected to type, and if they got a job, it was most likely as a secretary and, of course, the goal was to marry a good man.  There was little chance of advancement in the workplace and the pay was low.  However, women had the pill and were coming into the workforce in greater numbers.  Office workers became the largest segment of the workforce at that time.

Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy both came from activist families and both were secretaries at Harvard.  After a student came into Karen’s office, looked straight at her and said, “Isn’t anybody here?” she and Ellen decided to start talking to other office workers. They realized that there was strength in numbers. They called themselves 9to5 and began with publishing a newsletter with stories from office workers and their experiences.  One older woman wrote, “We are ‘the girls’ until we retire without a pension.”  They met with personnel at the university with demands for better pay, better working conditions, possibilities for advancement. They got nothing.

They decided they needed help.  They raised money to send Ellen to the Midwest Academy to learn organizing and how to channel power. 9to5 did surveys of workers, had one to one meetings and lunches with workers, organized events to air grievances, gave out “bad boss” awards, educated themselves in labor law and challenged illegal practices. They realized they needed to promote diverse leadership and build women’s confidence and skills.  They had some wins. They realized the employers worked together and the workers needed to also.  Eventually, they joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as District 925 and had union offices in several cities. However, by this time it was the 1980s, and Ronald Reagan and elite employers declared open season on unions.  Organizing a union was extremely difficult as was getting a first contract. There was a backlash against feminism and the ERA failed to be ratified.

The popular movie, “9 to 5” (1980), with Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin and Dolly Parton was based on interviews with 925 union members in Cleveland.  The famous song by Dolly Parton was written for the movie which was a “farce” about secretaries and what they did to their boss, but it highlighted many office worker problems such as lack of promotion, sexual harassment, the coffee rebellion, low pay, and benefits.  It also brought lots of attention to 925 and office workers.  

I was fortunate to work in the office at SEIU Local 925 in Seattle as office support staff.  When I started in 1984, we had 1,000 members and 4 staff in an open shop. I think I made coffee once in 22 years. The union, run by women, absolutely would not let me. In 1994 after much hard work, we won an agency shop. With agency shop a worker did not have to join the union, but they had to pay a fee to the union for collective bargaining and representation on their behalf. Agency shop allowed us to have a stable financial base and devote resources to organizing a larger segment of workers. When I retired with a pension, we represented 20,000 office workers, IT staff, lab techs, and family childcare workers.

In 2018 the Supreme Court issued the Janus decision which reversed precedent and declared that all public employees are entitled to work without having to pay union dues or agency fees. This was another blow to strong unions.  The work, labor law and the workforce has changed since 9to5 began. It remains to be seen how the labor movement will fare in the coming years. However, we know that since the late 1930’s it was the labor movement that built the strong middle class in America in the post-World War II years. It is time again to organize and demand a living wage, paid sick days, health care, paid vacation, and respect.