Working 9 to 5: Organizing wisdom from the movement, organization, and the book.
Ellen Cassedy was a founder and longtime organizer with the 9 to 5 national association of working women. In her 2021 book, “Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie,” she offers a wealth of practical organizing tips. You can find a copy here or from countless booksellers. Below is a quick interview with Ellen about the book and the organizing that inspired it.
What spurred the founding of 9 to 5 and what can organizers learn from the organizing that ignited its creation?
The early 1970’s were the great tipping point. Millions of women were pouring into the workplace. One in three women workers was an office worker. A sleeping giant was awakening. We dreamed of a better life on the job.
Ten of us from around the Boston area started sitting in a circle talking about our jobs. Low pay. Unequal pay. Dead end jobs. Training men to be our supervisors. Having to do favors, all kinds of favors, for our bosses. And the lack of respect: As one woman said, “They call us girls until the day we retire without pension.”
We sensed we had our finger on the pulse of something powerful — and we were right.
Over the next few years, our movement won millions of dollars in back pay and raises, started a woman-led union, became a nationwide multiracial organization, and inspired the 1980 Hollywood hit movie and Dolly Parton’s toe-tapping song.
What made us effective was two things: 1) our use of community organizing tactics and 2) our pioneering blend of the ideas of the women’s movement and the labor movement.
Can you say more about both of those — community organizing tactics and blending the ideas of the women’s movement and organized labor?
We set out to make change not workplace by workplace, but citywide — and eventually, nationwide. Instead of filing for a formal union election at one workplace after another — as a traditional union approach might have been — we analyzed all the possible pressure points that could be brought on employers, and we used media attention, humor, public embarrassment, and government enforcement action to make the corporate titans change their ways.
Eventually we did form a union — District 925, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). There, we did organize workplace by workplace, filing for formal elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. But whatever we did, we never abandoned our outside-the-box community organizing tactics.
One historian has described the 9 to 5 movement as being like the coming together of two rivers — the economic and the cultural. Our slogan, “Raises and Roses,” harkened back to the early 20th century, when militant women garment workers demanded “Bread and Roses.” We wanted higher pay, equal pay, and we wanted respect — as women and as workers.
A lot of fights that are fully in play today were moved from the margins to the mainstream by 9 to 5 and organizations like it. What is an issue or idea you are most proud of having helped move into the winnable column?
Issues once considered individual matters are now matters of policy. Corporate policy. Government policy. Union policy. Pregnancy discrimination is illegal today. Sexual harassment is illegal. Family and medical leave have become part of federal law. We don’t have “help wanted male” and “help wanted female” ads in the newspapers anymore. And managerial jobs are now increasingly open to college-educated women.
We brought thousands of women into the labor movement. As women rose up into top union positions, they prioritized issues like flexible schedules, paid sick time, minimum staffing levels, and mental health.
Today, in our current labor organizing surge — among retail workers, baristas, fast food workers, warehouse workers, tech workers, childcare and home care workers, domestic workers, grad students, and congressional aides — these issues are often in the forefront, along with higher pay.
A lot of younger organizers never received training on how to cut an issue and build a campaign. Can you share a winning campaign story that illustrates some of the fundamentals of good campaigning?
Our campaign for on-the-job improvements for women and people of color in the banking industry was among our proudest achievements.
Most workers in finance were women. More than three-quarters held clerical jobs. Full-time bank employees didn’t make enough to qualify for a mortgage or a car loan. Some earned so little that they were eligible for food stamps.
The finance industry was huge, wealthy, and powerful, but banks and insurance companies had an Achilles’ heel: image was everything. Simply bringing employees’ grievances into public view would take us a long way.
But we faced serious obstacles. There was little or no history of collective action in the downtown office workforce. When you had a problem, you were likely to think of it as your individual personal problem. Maybe you should dress better, or take a class.
Employees were scared — and rightly so. Working conditions were authoritarian. You couldn’t leave your cubicle and go talk to someone else without your supervisor noticing. When we handed out our leaflets outside the big skyscrapers, supervisors would be waiting inside the revolving doors, ready to snatch the leaflets right out of women’s hands.
To get around these constraints, we — well, we ate a lot of lunches. We invited office workers out to lunch and listened carefully to what they were concerned about and what they might be willing to do.
We came up with multiple ways for women to act together without jeopardizing their jobs. Our strategy had three prongs.
1) We worked like crazy to get in the media.
2) We got government agencies working on our behalf.
3) We came up with safe ways for women to take action anonymously — to act as “whistle-blowers.”
The First National Bank of Boston was the biggest bank in town. When we declared 1979 The Year of the First, things began to change right away.
On the very first day of our campaign, the bank announced in the Boston Globe that they were instituting job posting, which was our first demand. We were out the next morning in front of the bank with a leaflet: “First Victory at the First!”
We set up an anonymous hotline just for employees of the bank. The line immediately began ringing off the hook.
Soon we were back in front of the bank with another leaflet, telling what people had told us on the hotline. All safe, all anonymous, but it was powerful.
Within days, rumors of an across-the-board raise began circulating within the bank.
We invited churches, unions, and other organizations with accounts at the First to join a “shadow board” that would monitor the bank’s progress toward fair employment. We demonstrated outside the annual stockholders’ meeting. We asked mayoral candidates to pledge not to invest city funds at the bank until changes were made.
By the end of the “Year of the First,” 51 women had been promoted to officer jobs. Training opportunities and vacation time had been expanded. A grievance procedure was in place. And employees had won raises of up to 12 percent, the largest increase in the bank’s history.
If you were going to teach new organizers three things to get started, what would they be?
1) Listen to your constituents.
As a result of all the listening we did at those lunches, we created an organization that felt like home to a diverse range of women. Women with a high school education and women with college degrees. White women and women of color. Young women and old women. Bold women and timid women. Self-proclaimed “feminists” and those who didn’t want to use that word. We all linked arms in pursuit of common goals.
2) Get moving!
Don’t fall prey to the “rock pile syndrome.” By that I mean that the goal is not to get people into a meeting room one by one — to pile them up and then try to figure out what to do. Don’t try to build a “rock pile” of prospective members who will just sit there until the organization gets moving. Instead, start by getting moving. Focus on your target — in our case, discriminatory employers. Get those targets into the arena, where they must respond to your demands. When people hear about your successes, they’ll be eager to join in.
3) Learn from the past, but forge your own path.
We listened carefully to people who could advise us, but we knew that whatever we did would be new.
In this line of work, you’re always reaching for the horizon and beyond. There’s always more to do, more victories to be won. Go for it!