The 1970s was a decade of enormous growth in women’s labor force participation — but many women continued to experience low pay, limited opportunities for upward mobility, poor working conditions, and occupational segregation in lower-paid, women-dominated sectors of the economy. Women’s economic inequality was particularly acute, as women earned a fraction of men’s wages. One in three women held clerical jobs in 1979. The working conditions were far from ideal. Inaccurate job descriptions, duties that had nothing to do with the job — such as having to run personal errands — and lack of a voice in workplace decisions characterized most clerical work.

By the early 1970s, women office workers in the United States started to create working women associations to address their workplace concerns. The working women’s movement, which included women from a range of occupations, emerged in independent local organizations, such as 9to5 in Boston, Women Office Workers in New York City, Women Employed in Chicago, and Union W.A.G.E and Women Organized for Employment in San Francisco. Their efforts expressed the renewed expectation that women workers were entitled to certain fundamental rights, such as respect on the job and equal pay.

In 1973, Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum founded the largest and most influential working women’s organization, 9to5. Extensive one-on-one organizing and relationship-building contributed to the success of 9to5 and the unions that grew out of it, SEIU Local 925 and District 925. I sat down with Cassedy and Nussbaum to talk about the tactics they used to get women involved in organizing their workplaces, the importance of fun in their organizing efforts, and what lessons organizers today can take from their work. 

-Amanda Walter


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed. 


AW: How did you get involved in worker organizing?

KN: Ellen and I were both working as clerical workers at Harvard University, and there were daily irritating things. During this time, there was a small group of waitresses at a restaurant in Harvard Square called Cronin's. And they went from being angry to starting a union all by themselves, zero to 100. And they created the Harvard Square Waitresses Organizing Committee, of which they were the only members. But they got the support of the women’s movement, and I would go out on picket duty once a week. I began to think about how you could bring the concerns of women’s equality into the workplace. That was the inspiration for me. We started to organize at Harvard. What did we call ourselves? 

EC: Harvard Office Workers Group, HOWG. So I guess you saw in the film, they spent quite a bit of time on the meeting we had with the director of personnel at Harvard. The big revelation there was that he was as scared as we were. And then the other revelation was that nothing happened after that. We had made these demands, we'd worked very hard, we'd met with the boss — and that was it. So from there, we realized that we were going to have to figure out a strategy and learn some organizing tactics and techniques. And that was when the group decided to send me to the Midwest Academy


AW: How did you initially get women involved in that organization?

EC: Harvard's a huge employer, so we had friends working all over the campus. Something we hadn't yet learned how to do was real outreach to people beyond the people we knew personally. But at the Midwest Academy, that’s where we learned the skills of the craft of outreach and targeting people. 

And I think something we did right was, we were very curious and we were listening very hard to people who were not like us. One of the great reasons for our movement in general was there was such a very diverse group of women who were working in offices. There were college educated women who were just astonished that what they were doing all day was typing. There were women who had a high school degree who were thrilled to be working in an office rather than in a factory. And all these women are sitting next to each other and looking around the room and thinking, "We all have the same problems; we all have something in common." 


AW: How did you deal with workers who were uninterested in worker organization or unionism?

EC: We had to start out as close to the women as we could in [what we said] and what we were asking people to do, without getting too far ahead. And that meant that our first meeting, the flyers we handed out were pink and they were very mild in their vocabulary. For example, the word “worker” was not used; you had to say employee. “Wages” wasn’t used, more like salary or pay. Sometimes people weren’t even up for [boss], and you would say management or supervisor. We adapted our tone. We were ready to meet people where they were at, and we also had a sense of where we were going.


AW: The film 9 to 5 definitely got more people aware of 9to5. Can you talk a little bit about how the film impacted the organization?

EC: The film was huge. It was the greatest thing that could ever have happened to us. The film ended the debate over whether there was discrimination. At the beginning, we had to have conversations with people about whether there was discrimination. By the time the film had happened, that  wasn't true anymore. The question was, "Now, what do we do about it?" I remember being on the bus one time after the movie came out, and I heard  one woman saying, "So I said to him, ‘No, I will not make your coffee, I just saw 9 to 5.’"


AW: What was the role of fun in organizing for 9to5? 

KN: Fun was a really big part of what we did. We made up songs all the time. We hardly had a meeting where we hadn’t made up some song. We did skits. We had contests; we had the pettiest office procedure contest, we had the bad boss contest. We had a campaign about banking in Baltimore, where we carried around brooms because we were going to sweep out the banks. So all of that was important. Fun is fun; it makes it more appealing to participate. We had something at Halloween where people were dressed like Wite-Out bottles or they painted their faces. If we were trying to get people signed up on some petition, we had a bake sale and that’s what brought them to the table to sign the petition. People think about political organizing as scary or boring. We tried to make it neither. 

EC: In Cleveland, they were organizing at the public library. The organizing committee was all depressed, and somebody said, "When are they ever going to just move on wages?" And somebody else said, "When the cows come home." And then somebody else said, "Mooove on wages." So the next day, they rented a herd of [plastic] cows, and they put them on the lawn of the administration building. They get cow bells and, as the administration is coming into work, they’re ringing these things, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. At the University of Washington, the administration had removed all the tampon machines from the restrooms as a cost cutting measure. [The women] made it the centerpiece of their negotiations. And every time they mentioned Tampax, some [of the administrators] would have to leave the room, they were so embarrassed. And it became a tactic. 


AW: 9to5 was wonderful at building relationships. Can you go into how you went about doing that? How was it different from what most labor unions were doing at the time?

KN: I actually don’t agree that this is feminist organizing as opposed to traditional organizing; I just think it’s good organizing. That you talk to people. You develop a relationship with them. You understand their concerns. They come to understand their power. You engage together in an activity for which you all grow and understand your power even better. So any organizer should be doing that. Now, because we were brand new, we wouldn’t succeed unless we did that. We had an imperative to be good organizers or else we wouldn’t exist. The comparison usually is to a trade union movement where local unions had been in existence for 25 years. They probably didn’t engage in good organizing in that way because they didn’t have that imperative. And I think we developed at a time when the trade union movement was beginning to go on the decline and not even realizing it. 

One of the things we were especially conscious about was that we needed to bring together women who were working class and middle class and who were of different races. We had to be very deliberate, or it would not happen. Otherwise, you would end up organizing people just like you. We did not ever have an event that didn’t include older women, younger women, college educated, high school educated, Black, brown, white. It was the public face that meant that people could see themselves in the organization no matter who they were. And it also developed the working relationships that people wouldn't have had if they were just relying on friendships. 


AW: How did you go about finding leaders, and then how did you work on developing leadership?

EC: So many women could do so much and they didn’t realize it yet. We coached people through this step and that step and, "Will you come to the meeting?" And, "Will you bring a friend? Will you be the one to set up the chairs?" Simple things like that, easy things. And then from there, people would progress up to, "Will you make a report at the meeting? Will you chair the meeting? Will you speak at the press conference?" [We took] people through those steps from an easy thing to a less easy thing, recognizing that people can do so much more than they think they can.

KN: Let me talk a little bit about the summer school. Early on, soon after we started 9to5, we began these four-day weekends at Bryn Mawr College. It would be trainings like how to give a speech, issues facing the economy, how do you organize a committee. We would have people talking about what was happening with automation of the office. You would have the song committee, which worked to develop the songs for the weekend. And Jane Fonda came to do an open air workshop with the women office workers. It was a thrilling time for all of our members.


AW: What was the most exciting victory that you had with either the association or the union? 

EC: I sort of tiptoed into the publishing industry, and it was hot. People were really simmering with rage, and it was ready to blow. And I came in and I was suggesting things like, "Well, let's throw up a picket line around the Boston Globe book festival," and then there'd be this long moment of silence. And then someone would say, "I think we should rent a table, pass out a survey."  I had to know how much to push, and how much not to push. I felt that I succeeded in keeping my hands on the reins a little bit, enough, but also respecting where these women were at, and they were smart and they became very courageous.

We put out a survey based on what we had gathered from the  book festival. We took it to the Attorney General. We did not go to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which was waiting for us with forms to fill out that were going to be filed away nowhere. We went to a place that had never done anything like this before, the Attorney General, and brought him the information and said, "We think that you should file suit against these companies." And he did.

KN: When I left the union, there was a going away party. And one of the members from the union said, "Karen never asked me to do anything that I couldn't do, but she knew I was capable of so much more than I ever imagined." And I felt like I did my job, and that's what my job was.


AW: How can you measure success even when you can't always achieve all the goals that you're hoping to achieve?

EC: You always set these goals, you're always going for the mountain top, and you never get there. And you've got to get some victories along the way, but you're always going for that next step.  If you win something, I'm sometimes a little suspicious. "Gee, should we have shot higher?" Well, yeah. But I also think that setting out some goals that you think you can win and then going after them with everything you've got is a really important part of organizing. You have to give people a way to participate and win some victories.

KN: And I think that leads to the fundamental victory. And that is, do people have a sense of collective power? Or do they think that they're on their own? And that's our battle. If people have a sense of collective power, then you have the strength to go out and fight and sometimes win on anything. But if you don't, you can't even begin to fight. And I think we accomplished a lot of that with 9to5. We affected literally millions of working women and changed the way they thought about themselves, their power, and their potential.


AW: Do you have any advice from your experiences that you could give to organizers today?

EC: Listen really hard to the people you are seeking to organize. Make sure you win things. Link arms and have that be the energy of the organizing. 

KN: We always operated as a team. No individual was responsible for a failure and no individual got the glory of the victory. At Working America, we say you need to have movement and math. That you've got to have a vision of where you're going and be full of heart to meet that vision, but that you also need to hold yourself accountable. Are you winning? Who's with you and who isn't? Just being full of heart doesn't allow you to win. 


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