9-to-5 at Forty Years: Reconsidering a Women’s Movement for Workplace Power

AHA Session 196
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Washington Room 4 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Nancy MacLean, Duke University
Dennis A. Deslippe, Franklin and Marshall College
Karen Nussbaum, Working America
Betsy West, Storyville Films and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Lane Windham, University of Maryland at College Park

Session Abstract

In 1973, the women who created the clerical workers’ association, 9to5, envisioned a new model for workplace power.  They protested fanny pats and coffee runs with rallies, press events, and lawsuits, and even inspired the culture-bending, star-studded movie, 9to5.  They burst onto the public’s consciousness at a moment women were entering the workplace in droves.  In eschewing established labor relations and “following their noses” - -   as explained by Karen Nussbaum, 9to5 founder and panel participant - - they helped re-write equations of workplace power for women.

At first, union contracts and bureaucracies did not occur to these labor feminists as viable tools for change, but wage and benefit increases proved elusive without the keys to state-supported collective bargaining.  In the early 1980s, they created a dovetailed-organization - - on one side was the women’s association 9to5, and on the other was a labor union, District 925 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).   Through their union, they succeeded in helping public sector workers win lasting change, such as at universities, and were thoroughly defeated in private-sector union organizing efforts, such as at banks.

Forty years later, does the 9to5 movement take on a renewed historical significance? Women’s increased work force participation is one of the single largest economic and social changes of the late 20th century.  Union membership, meanwhile, is at a 93-year low while economic inequality soars, and the gender wage gap proves intransigent at 82 percent.  If we understand that today’s global economy requires new organizational forms for workplace power, were these women pioneers not only for women workers, but for the entire 99%? 

The roundtable, “9to5 at Forty Years:  Reconsidering a Women’s Movement for Workplace Power” seeks to spark a discussion reconsidering this early and clear example of women driving a new kind of labor movement.  Bringing together scholars, a 9to5 founder and a current filmmaker, it seeks to not only put these efforts in the context of current historical scholarship, but to also raise what the 9to5 legacy means for some of current challenges facing the labor and women’s movements.

Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy at Duke University, will chair the panel.  Karen Nussbaum, a 9to5 founder and director, will also bring to the roundtable her experience as director of Working America and Director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau.  Dennis Deslippe, an associate professor of American Studies and Women and Gender Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, will comment on how the varied experiences of women in the workplace gave shape and character to labor feminism.  Betsy West, will discuss the legacy of 9to5 through her experience as executive producer of MAKERS: Women Who Make America, a PBS documentary about the women’s movement that premiered in February 2013.  Lane Windham, a PhD candidate in labor and working class history at the University of Maryland, will put the 9to5 effort within the context of 1970s private-sector unionization efforts.

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