In the early 1970s, a group of female clerical workers in Boston, Massachusetts, began organizing for better wages, advancement opportunities, and an end to sexual harassment. Their organizing efforts spurred a nationwide movement called 9to5, formed to improve working conditions for women across the board, and eventually toward the goal of forming unions within the workplace.
A new documentary film on the 9to5 movement from the Academy Award-winning film-makers of American Factory premieres 1 February on PBS, and the makers believe the movement has many echoes of today’s social justice movements from #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
Women’s participation in the workforce climbed from 33.9% in 1950 to about 51.5% in 1980. As more women began entering the workforce, they faced glaring pay inequities, rampant gender discrimination, pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment.
The film, featuring interviews with leading organizers of the movement and actor Jane Fonda, who starred in and helped develop the 1980 film 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, explores the history behind the movement that inspired the Hollywood film, its successes, losses, and parallels to the ongoing struggles in the labor movement and for women’s rights today.
“Women had so few opportunities that working-class women and middle-class women found themselves with the same problems in the same workplaces. We were able to bring people together across class, make sure that we were confronting divisions around race by bringing people together and finding common cause. And it worked,” said Karen Nussbaum, co-founder and director of 9to5.
From Boston, 9to5 grew to cities around the US, creating a space for women and women’s issues in the labor movement in tandem with the women’s liberation movement occurring in the same era. Rallying cries of “Raises not roses”, “coffee rebellions” and picketing actions spread to cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle.
Local chapters ran campaigns targeted at employers and directed toward issues such as securing promotions and hiring opportunities for women workers, healthcare benefits, pay raises, childcare, receiving back pay, and organizing women around collective issues impacting them in the workplace.
“It’s a lost history,” said film-maker Julia Reichert. “We started making this film long before we made American Factory. We didn’t realize the two films were going to end up talking to each other so much. For instance, the [American Factory] union drive was clearly defeated because plenty of workers were fired, and there were those huge mandatory meetings where workers were told unions were bad again and again. That all started in the 9to5 movement in the late 1970s and 80s.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, union avoidance developed into a multimillion-dollar industry as consultants and lawyers actively pursued employers to utilize their services. According to a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute, US companies spend nearly $340m a year on union avoidance advisers. In part as a result of the corporate backlash toward the labor movement, the union membership rate of the US workforce drastically declined over the past 50 years, from 20.1% in 1983 to 11.1% in 2015, driven primarily by union losses within the private sector.
“Whenever these votes occur, you might hear about a union drive and that the workers chose not to have the union. I feel a lot of people don’t get the kind of pressure workers are under from their boss, who pays their paychecks, stopping them from voting ‘yes’,” said film-maker Steven Bognar.
Organizers with the 9to5 movement formed a local within the Service Employees International Union, Local 925, in the early 1980s. Through their organizing efforts, workers experienced union election victories, but also suffered defeats at the hands of well-funded, aggressive anti-union campaigns where consultants utilized captive audience meetings, fear, and intimidation to suppress unionization efforts.
“Everyone should know that there is an opportunity to do collective bargaining, working together so that they can have better decision making, make more money, have better outcomes, and better benefits,” said Mary Jung, a 9to5 organizer and activist in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1970s. “It’s all about that one-on-one contact, how you approach people, how you’re inclusive, how you try to build an organization, and you just really need people to meet others where they’re at and see and show them where they can go.”
Co-founder of 9to5, Karen Nussbaum noted the political and social conditions that enabled the rise of the 9to5 movement in the 1970s is similar to the political and social turmoil the US has recently experienced, from economic recessions to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.
The new administration under Joe Biden has begun to take steps toward enacting a $15 minimum wage and reforming labor laws to facilitate workers to organize unions as public approval of labor unions is at the highest rate since the 1960s, at 65%, according to the latest Gallup poll, conducted in August 2020.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the unionization rate of the US workforce increased from 11.6% to 12.1% due to the job security protections afforded to workers who belong to a union. The decline in union membership over the past few decades has directly correlated to surges in income inequality, as increasing shares of income has been directed to the top 10% of wealthiest Americans.
After securing a slim majority in the senate, the Democratic party now has the ability, if they eliminate the filibuster, to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed in the House in 2019 but did not reach a vote in the then Republican-led Senate. The legislation would expand worker protections in forming unions, including raising penalties for firing workers in retaliation for union organizing and banning captive anti-union meetings in the workplace.
Aside from labor law reforms, Nussbaum explained worker-led organizations and unions need to partner together to organize to create the change similar to what 9to5 was able to achieve and continue to build on it.
“Unions and the new worker organizations need to have the kind of partnership that we did,” Nussbaum said. “No amount of foundation money is going to substitute for organizations that working people own themselves. And if we don’t have that, we’ll never have the power that we need to really be a counterbalance to the better corporate power that we have right now.”