Working 9 to 5: Class Diversity and Clerical Organizing

“Get your 9 to 5 newsletter! Get your 9 to 5!”

The early 1970s was a time of profound economic transformation. Women from across the class spectrum were flooding into the workforce by the millions. I was one of them.  At the age of 22, I was among ten women standing outside Boston’s subway stops handing out the first issue of a new newsletter aimed at women office workers.  Our goal was to shake things up in the banks, insurance companies, law firms, and universities that dominated the city’s economy.  We were young and green, but we sensed that we were on to something big.

In my new book, Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie, I describe how in building our organization we developed strategies and tactics to help women from across the class spectrum to feel welcome.   

Early on, we recognized that to build an organization that spoke to the clerical workforce as a whole, we’d need to appeal to women from a range of class backgrounds.  Meeting that goal strengthened our message and broadened our outreach. Class diversity turned out to be a key to our success.

As was true throughout US society, the concept of class in the office workforce was slippery, and people tended not to talk about it explicitly. Even so, women working in the “pink collar ghetto” of the office fell into two rough groups.  

One large group came from the city’s famous white ethnic neighborhoods. For women from these communities, compared to a factory or domestic job, working in an office felt like a step up. Dressing up, having your own desk in a clean, safe place, working side by side with managers and other professionals – these were some of the elements that made an office job seem like a route to rising up.  What was disappointing – indeed, shocking – was the pay, which turned out to be lower than factory wages. 

Another large group came to offices with college degrees, expecting to land professional jobs. They were angry to find themselves stuck at the bottom of the job ladder with no way up.

Yet no matter our origins or sense of class identity, to a remarkable degree, as we found ourselves sitting side by side, we looked at one another and felt united – as women. Joining together and moving forward together was a thrilling experience.

Not that most of us considered ourselves to be part of the women’s liberation movement.  Many rejected the label “feminist.” Nonetheless, we’d all been influenced by the ideas of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.

The 9 to 5 organization pressed for fair job policies at banks across the country. 

Equal pay had been the first rallying cry of the women’s movement, and now that cry began to be passed from secretary to file clerk, cubicle to cubicle. We fumed over the disrespect we were experiencing, too. As one woman put it, “they call us girls until the day we retire without pension.” We were angry at being treated as a nothing more than a set of ten typing fingers.  

As we built our organization, we strove to make sure our organization was welcoming to office workers from all parts of the class spectrum.

  • We emphasized that office jobs and office workers were worthy of respect.  Our focus was not on helping women to get out of such jobs, but on improving life in the typing pool itself.  We agitated for workplace policies – job descriptions, job posting, job training – that would benefit everyone. 
  • We recognized that most women office workers – especially those from lower-income families – couldn’t afford to lose their jobs, so we created safe ways to make change.  We wrote a Bill of Rights for Women Office Workers. We ran Bad Boss Contests. We pressured government agencies — easier targets for many women than their own bosses. 
  • We made sure that our public face reflected the workforce.  Class markers, of course, were everywhere – in how people spoke, how they dressed, where they’d grown up and where they lived now, what they aspired to and where their sympathies lay. We took care to ensure that our spokeswomen, leaders, and staff represented a range of class — and later racial — identities.

Things began to change. Before long, we were taking on the corporate titans coast to coast and winning millions of dollars in back pay and raises, as well as improvements in working conditions.

Our movement inspired Jane Fonda’s 1980 hit comedy, 9 to 5, in which three brave clerical workers join together to transform their workplace — and ran the place far better than the boss ever had.  The movie was a huge hit and helped us promote our ideas nationwide.   

Unionizing could be a major route to worker power, but few office workers were union members.  We wanted that to change. In 1981, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) granted us a charter to organize nationwide. We called our union District 925. Our organizing techniques and our bargaining strategies drew on the ad-hoc organizing we’d been doing, giving our union the same “Raises and Roses” character as the 9 to 5 organization.  

While we had no trouble finding people who wanted to organize, like other unions in the 1980’s and beyond, we encountered fierce resistance from employers. That pushback took a steep toll. Employers used delays, threats, and other tactics – both legal and illegal – to make it fiendishly difficult to win a contract. Nonetheless, we organized thousands of women and helped spawn a new generation of female leadership in the labor movement.

Multi-class organizing among working women back then achieved a lot. What were once seen as individual, private issues became matters of policy.  Pregnancy discrimination is now illegal. Sexual harassment is illegal.  We no longer have “help wanted male” and “help wanted female” ads in the newspapers.  Managerial jobs have opened up for college-educated women (though career ladders for those on the bottom rungs are still woefully scarce). More bosses get their own coffee.

Of course, much remains to be done. Being a worker in today’s economy can be harder than it was fifty years ago. In the gig economy, it can take a patchwork of two or three jobs to make ends meet. Too many workers suffer from strict computerized monitoring, unpredictable schedules, and paltry benefits.

The good news today is the upsurge of union organizing among retail workers, restaurant workers, warehouse workers, and grad students.  Just like in the 1970’s, these organizing efforts bring together workers from varied class backgrounds and different class identities.  Now, as then, that very diversity may turn out to be a key element in a new era of worker power.  

Ellen Cassedy

Ellen Cassedy was a co-founder of 9 to 5, the national association of working women. She is the author of Working 9 to 5: A women’s movement, a labor union, and the iconic movie (Chicago Review Press, September 6, 2022, foreword by Jane Fonda).  For educator discount: mroth@chicagoreviewpress.com. To reach Ellen Cassedy: www.ellencassedy.com

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1 Response to Working 9 to 5: Class Diversity and Clerical Organizing

  1. Pingback: Working-Class Perspectives, October – Working-Class Studies Association

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