9to5 Brought Women Into Labor and Working-Class Women Into the Women’s Movement
Karen Nussbaum was a cofounder of the pioneering labor-feminist organization 9to5. In an interview with Jacobin, she discusses why working women in the 1970s needed to organize as workers, 9to5’s hilarious tactics, and why “individually self-reliant but collectively powerless” women workers today still need to organize on the job.
- Interview by
- Marianela D’Aprile
Amid the fevered political upsurges of the late 1960s and early ’70s, a group of women office workers in Boston founded an organization called 9to5. One of these women was Karen Nussbaum. A self-described political radical, Nussbaum, along with coworker Ellen Cassedy, saw an opportunity to harness the energy of the growing women’s movement and combine it with the power of organized labor to create something new, an organization that would make homes for working women in the women’s movement and women in the labor movement.
For almost four decades, the comedy starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin has served as the primary cultural artifact tying us to this history. A new documentary, directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, changes that. 9to5: The Story of a Movement features footage from the peak of 9to5’s activities combined with contemporary interviews with 9to5 organizers and captures the hopeful and militant energy that drove their labor activism.
Jacobin contributor Marianela D’Aprile spoke with Nussbaum about the documentary, the 9to5 Movement, and the state of organized labor today.
I was struck by something you said in the documentary: “I was not interested in going to college at all; I just wanted to be a political activist — that was more interesting to me.” Was that a product of the political moment at the time, when everything was so volatile and political activity was in the air? That was not the case when I was eighteen — at eighteen, I would’ve never dreamed of thinking or saying something like that. What was it like to be in such a politicized moment and make that kind of a decision at such a young age?
I turned eighteen in 1968. Revolution was in the air. I entered college in 1968, and I remember seeing a study that said that one million college students thought of themselves as revolutionaries. To me, college was the opportunity to find my way into political relevance. That year, you had assassinations; you had the Paris uprising; you had the Black uprising in our country. Everything was on fire. There were paths for everybody.
So there was this political moment, but then there were also the economic conditions. It was possible to have four roommates, and find an apartment to live in, and only two of you needed to be working at paying jobs. It was financially possible to be independent. And I didn’t think it was necessary to have a college education. I dropped out of school, but I audited classes; I was interested in thought, but I didn’t think you necessarily had to do that through college. In terms of getting the credentials, because it was such a fevered and fulsome time, you didn’t worry that much about your future. It was a very different time. I consider myself really lucky to have come of age right at that moment.
Were you one of those one million college students? Did you think of yourself as a revolutionary?
Not at eighteen, but by nineteen I did.
What caused that change?
For one thing, I went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade. When I was nineteen, I went on the second Venceremos Brigade. It was a fantastic experience to be a part of this new socialist country, to be removed from my own country and see things in a different light. So it was a process of becoming a full-time activist, having this remarkable experience, and coming to the understanding of what it meant to be a radical. I learned that I didn’t have to only think about how to deal with the consequences of our problems, which was exhausting, but instead to think about the cause of our problems, which was exhilarating.
Did other people around you share that same sense of exhilaration and being able to name and identify the causes of the problems?
Yes and no. When I was in high school, I was very attuned to injustice, and the only path I could see [to confronting it] was becoming a social worker. But then I thought, how do you spend enough hours in the day to solve all the problems that are out there? By the time I understood you could deal with root problems instead of consequences, that almost gave me a sense of relief. It was a feeling that your energy could be directed in a way that would have a profound effect, as opposed to a palliative effect. That was an overarching perspective which I shared with friends who were also political radicals.
But I also believed from an early stage that you needed mass-based institutions to make change. You could do that through churches — those are mass-based institutions — but I wasn’t religious, so that wasn’t a path for me. Or you could do it through politics, but the party structure wasn’t very appealing to me, either. Or you could do it through unions, which was the other mass-based institution.
But to do that work effectively, you have to have a very open approach to people who aren’t the least bit like you, who don’t share your perspective at all, who wouldn’t know a radical from a reformer. That’s the key to building a strong, democratic organization: not having that litmus test for entry, and instead being able to build organizations that people want to join, and through that experience, change.
9to5 famously used humor to bring people in. In the documentary, I saw a clip of a TV show, where the boss himself, who had been named the worst boss in the city, was participating in his own roast! How did you all pull that off?
We did things that were fun because we wanted to have fun. It wasn’t a tactic so much as we wanted to build the kind of organization we would want to join. For us that meant making up funny songs, doing skits about bad bosses, having the bad boss contest every year. It wasn’t a strategy so much as it was building a culture that reflected who we were and that would be appealing to other working women.
We pilloried these bosses by name. We would take the press with us to go announce who the bad boss was that year. Partly it was because we didn’t have a lawyer, and we didn’t have any assets! We didn’t know that we shouldn’t be doing it or that we should be worried. I later tried to do that through the AFL-CIO, and simply couldn’t.
The best part of this is that the times were so different then that the employers were not ashamed of what they were doing. They were not ashamed that they had had a free ride.
In the documentary, you see this boss who sends his secretary to the bar and tells her to page him when she finds a woman who meets his specifications. They are on television, and he’s not worried about that, he owns up to it right here on TV! And he puts his arm around the woman! It was a sense of entitlement that they had. It was the bad boss contest and other actions like that that over time made it unacceptable to, if not behave that way, at least admit that you were behaving that way. It was those kinds of actions that changed the notion of what was acceptable behavior.
Labor militancy and feminism in 9to5 were so organically tied to each other — it seems like you were inventing a new kind of labor feminism. Is that how you all thought about it?
We thought about how we could succeed in bringing women into our organization and our movement. That meant you didn’t talk about it as being “feminist,” because most women didn’t identify as feminists. Women would say “I’m no women’s libber, but… I don’t like the way I am being treated by the boss.”
We never made that an entry hurdle; we never called ourselves a feminist organization. We didn’t use the word “organize,” even, for the first few years, because women didn’t know what we were talking about! “You mean, organize your closet?” There was a language that didn’t compute with most working women. I always thought you shouldn’t make words the enemy of your ideas. So we always started with the ideas and made those available and brought people into action, and it was action which then changed how people thought of themselves and who they could identify with.
We made those decisions because it was the best way to organize successfully. But we were also clear about what we were trying to do as a strategy. On the one hand, we were building a wing of the women’s movement that was for working women, who didn’t otherwise identify with the women’s movement. This was a way to expand the women’s movement to a new group of women who otherwise weren’t getting there.
On the other hand, we were bringing the women’s movement into the labor movement. So we were operating to create a home for working women in the women’s movement, and for women in the labor movement. We wanted to build up a power base and a project that would meet the needs of these new constituencies in these different movements.
How did you all come up with that vision?
We first started organizing 9to5 because we were working as clerical workers. I was a radical and an activist in the antiwar movement and in the women’s movement, and I came to realize that I could bring this organizing into my job, and then I started to think more about the potential for the labor movement.
In 1971 for May Day, I was in DC, and there was a side demonstration chanting: “What are the unions for?! General strike to end the war!” I thought, “huh, that’s a good idea.” That showed how cut off I was from labor history and knowledge of labor unions, but that’s what was going on at the time: unions were not where a lot of the political fervor was taking place.
But this notion that the power of labor unions as democratic, mass-based organizations that bridged racial and class differences became important to me and others. That, combined with the momentum of the women’s movement and how it was bypassing lots of working women, presented the opportunity to bring the ideas to the women’s movement and make them accessible and actionable to working women.
What were you all reading at the time?
We were reading Monthly Review, Harry Braverman, Paul Sweezy. We were more interested in the labor theory side than the feminist theory side, to tell you the truth, just from my perspective. But it was all out there. There was also this huge underground newspaper culture, stuff being written all over the place, and you could consume it endlessly. There was a culture of thousands of small orgs popping up for anything. I lived in Boston at the time, and there were a thousand orgs, and I was in half a dozen of them.
There was this idea at the time that if you had a problem or interest, you could find five other people and start a group about it. Responding to things as a group was so much more available in the ’60s and’ 70s, and got driven out of our culture in the decades after.
Now, after forty or fifty years, we have women who are individually self-reliant, in a way that we would’ve never seen in the ’70s, but collectively powerless. Over the years, I would ask women: “What do you do if you’ve got a problem on the job?” In the ’70s women would say, “I could call 9to5, or the National Organization for Women, or the mayor’s office.” There were institutional responses. Over the decades, the response got narrower and narrower: “I could talk to a coworker.” After that it became, “I could talk to my mother.” By the 2000s, women were saying, “I don’t talk to anybody. I pray to God or rely on myself.”
Women now can “do it all,” as individuals, and have much worse working conditions. Certainly working families have been pushed way back economically. And the prospects look even more grim than they did in the 1970s.
Women today have been fed a completely erroneous idea about what being independent means, that we have to shoulder every burden on our own. That’s not how I want to live. So the idea that we are “individually self-reliant but collectively powerless” is very resonant for me.
I just rewatched the Dolly Parton/Jane Fonda movie, and it was shocking to me how relevant it still is. We still have all of the same problems that they were dealing with, except the culture has really changed. Sexual harassment is certainly taken more seriously, and almost no one would dare call a woman office worker a “girl.”
Those changes happened because groups like 9to5 were waging these labor fights. The culture wouldn’t have changed on its own.
In the ’70s, there was huge organizing going on among working women. There was 9to5, and there was also Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, coal mining women in an organization called the Coal Employment Project, Women of Steel, and even an organization for sex workers called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics).
All of this going on, responding to the characteristics of each industry, where women are building the organizations themselves with their own expression of their demands for women’s quality. There is all this pressure on employers, as well as lawsuits and demands for unionization.
By 1980, employers decided they would use a safety valve. They decide to give on the issues of promotions and letting women in on the good jobs. So women, particularly white, middle-class and upper-middle-class women, over the next decade or two become managers and professionals. They split the workforce. They split the college-educated women, gave them opportunities and shut them up, and downgraded work for the rest of us, for working-class women.
All of that was part of the strategy to compete globally not on the high road but on the low road — not with a highly educated, highly productive workforce, but with a low-wage workforce. So big corporations restructured the workforce between 1975 and 1990. Part of that was destroying the unions, which started in 1981 with PATCO. The week of the PATCO lockout was the week we announced the union [SEIU District 925] was going national. It was the worst timing imaginable.
The ’70s were a period of huge momentum, which smacked right up against a reversal on the part of big corporations. They changed their strategy, and they were serious about taking away worker power. That’s why I think what you see are the cultural changes. Those couldn’t be resisted, because so much organizing was behind it. But workers’ economic power was smashed. The ’70s saw the rise of the working women’s movement and the rise of the union-busting movement at the same time.
If you wanted to make changes on a broad scale, change laws, change standards, learn new skills, you joined 9to5, but if you wanted to change your workplace, you joined the union.
9to5 started as a local association and then a local union, and then the local organization went national and so did the union. What motivated the preservation of the two distinct organizations at the local and the national level? It seems like a way to make it as inclusive as possible and able to capture as many women who were working and interested in organizing.
That was the motivation! We understood that 9to5 the association had this very broad appeal, and any woman who was even just irritated could find a way to understand her role in society in a new way. But to consolidate change, you needed the power of a union. By having sister organizations, we were just being very up-front about it.
If you wanted to make changes on a broad scale, change laws, change standards, learn new skills, you joined 9to5, but if you wanted to change your workplace, you joined the union. It made complete sense, and it really worked that way, too. Women who came into 9to5 the association understood their own power in a new way and became interested in organizing in their workplaces, so they did move down that path in many cases.
I am curious to know about the later years of the organization and the union, how things evolved through the ’90s in this new, bleaker terrain for workers. What do you make of our current political moment, specifically as it relates to the labor movement?
Both organizations still exist today, but neither fulfilled the ambitions that we had in the 1970s of being big, national mass-based organizations that could operate on that kind of scale. The association over time became an organization that doesn’t focus on office workers but low-wage women workers overall. It continues to do wonderful work in leadership development and working on issues like paid family leave and equal pay. The union, which once operated nationally, now operates as SEIU Local 925 in Seattle as a local with thirty thousand members.
There was this momentum in the ’70s where we didn’t understand what we were running into, which was both the consolidation of corporate control over the economy and politics on the one hand, and the consolidation of a new right wing that had started with Nixon. The right-wing backlash changed America, and we’re still seeing the consequences of it today.
I think the 2020s are very similar to the 1970s, in that it’s a period of rupture. In both the ’70s and the ’20s, you have political upheaval, economic upheaval, and social upheaval. The task is to not repeat the 1980s, to make this decade one where we push through, consolidate the public opinion that we need. I think we’re in a much better position for that, to make this a period of profound change, not just a respite.
Who do you think has to be on the front lines of that?
We’re already seeing a lot of action: BLM, the #MeToo movement, youth organizing around climate, and the growing understanding of climate as an important issue throughout society. It’s not a middle-class issue anymore; it’s an issue that working-class people feel affects them deeply. All of that is going on, but to build a significant counter to corporate power, you need worker power. You have to have mass-based, democratic, self-sufficient organizations.
The workers’ revolution won’t be funded by Jeff Bezos. We have to have self-sufficient, democratic organizations of working people in order to really change the economy and make it an economic democracy. That means unions. It’s a wonderful time to be organizing unions. It’s a really exciting moment. If you aren’t doing union organizing right now, then jump right in.