THERE HAVE always been professions in which low pay, bad work conditions and rapid job turnover have made sure that employers won't be bothered by any trouble-making union organizers. Amongst secretaries and waitresses, anyone who sticks her neck out will most likely get her head cut off. There's always plenty more heads where that came from. Furthermore, when it looks like most of the employees in a given profession would leap at the next chance to get out altogether, unions are naturally discouraged from trying to organize.
What all this means is that there are some jobs where people believe conditions can't improve because no one seems to think it's worth it, because conditions are already so bad that no one wants to stay, because conditions can't improve because...
Office workers have been some of the worst victims of the faulty logic of that gibberish. A large part of the problem has been ubiquitous ignorance about what those 14 million people--a fifth of the work force--do for a living. Admittedly, the general public always seems to know least about, and take most for granted, those professions that are vital to the bodily functions of society. But there are a lot more myths about women who decide to file, type and answer telephones for a living than there are about men who take away garbage.
People will actually tell you a good secretary ought to be her boss's "office wife;" office homemaking is part of the job. They will tell you that office workers are badly paid because the jobs don't deserve more money, because most women are only working until they get married or because they want to supplement their husband's income. Maybe they'll even try to tell you that Times Are Changing and women office workers' wages are catching up with men's.
But they are wrong. In 1971, (more recent figures are not available, but wage differentials don't change fast), the average woman clerical worker's salary was 62 per cent of the average man's--lower than the 68 per cent figure of nine years earlier. And the old image of the young, unmarried, female office workers is way out of date. By 1960, the median age of women clerical workers was 35, and more than half were married.
Boston, with its permanent reserve labor force of unemployed college graduates, is bound to treat its office workers badly. But few people realized just how badly until 1972 when a group of angry secretaries began looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics studies. They found that while Boston had the highest cost of living in the continental United States, its clerical workers were among the lowest paid. A study of clerical salaries in 15 comparable cities found that only employers in Birmingham and Memphis paid lower wages than those in Boston.
Educated, trained women running offices around Boston began to decide they were tired of making coffee for the boss.
It started at Harvard. Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, secretaries at the Education School, put out a newsletter in an effort to organize University clerical workers, but the response was discouraging and they gave up. Then at a Women's Action Project convention in Boston in the spring of 1972, they heard other women with similar complaints. Nussbaum and Cassedy quit their jobs and joined eight other Boston office workers to lay the foundations for 9to5, Boston's first and only organization for women office workers. From those ten people handing out their monthly newsletter at subway exits, 9to5 has grown into a mass membership organization that has visibly affected the lives of the 200.000 women office workers in the Greater Boston area.
Probably 9to5's most spectacular battle has been the campaign against discrimination in the Massachusetts insurance industry. As a direct result, the state is the first in the country to regulate the ways insurance companies treat women and minority employees.
The campaign began in 1974, after release of a 9to5 study of the insurance industry in Boston. The group found that although women constituted more than half of the industry's workforce, they filled 86 per cent of the clerical and office jobs while men occupied 88 per cent of managerial, professional and sales jobs. The study also found that women working in the same jobs as men with the same amount of experience got lower pay and had a harder time getting promoted. Women were training men to become their supervisors; other women titled and paid as secretaries were doing administrative and higher paid work.
9to5 convinced the state Secretary for Consumer Affairs and the state Department of Insurance to hold public hearings. Citing Executive Order 74, which forbids state agencies to license discriminatory companies, they then proved that the state Insurance Commissioner was legally bound to deny licenses to firms discriminating against minorities and women.
Now Massachusetts insurance companies are required to give their employees comprehensive written job descriptions that forbid extra work for no pay, to offer equal benefits programs for all employees, to provide real access to promotion through job postings, and to weigh years of experience equally with college degrees in making hiring decisions. Rules that applied only to women clericals--late slips, bells, bathroom passes--have finally been eliminated.
Back in 1973 when the fledgling organization was still settling in on the seventh floor of the Clarendon Street YWCA, 9to5's founders envisioned the organization as a clearinghouse of information for women office workers, with a small staff that might help resolve grievances with employers. (At that time, except for government employees, almost none of the city's officeworkers were in unions or organized in any way.) Last May, Joan Tighe, one of the founders, said the group had "succeeded beyond my wildest dreams."
Even though 9to5 has steadily moved into larger and larger areas, its tactics remain the same as they were back at the beginning--publicity and pressure. Hearings, demonstrations, conventions, leaflets, their newsletter, published studies and press coverage are strong weapons in the 9to5 arsenal. Its strategy is aggressive without being arrogant: if working conditions for women in offices are going to be changed, 9to5 believes, the real impetus to change them has to come from women already inside those office.
Initially 9to5 works indirectly, publicizing the issues, hoping to trigger an impulse to organize from within. Once a woman has taken the step of contacting 9to5, the staff offers free legal counseling and will help her plan strategy. Usually they look into employment practices throughout her particular industry in Boston, then confront management--and, if necessary, bring legal proceedings against the company. Or they may call for public hearings and pressure government agencies to enforce anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action requirements.
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