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Women in the workplace ignored no more


“There were 20 million women office workers, and we didn’t exist.” That’s a comment shared in the documentary “9 to 5, the Story of a Movement,” that the PEF Women’s Committee brought to union members in March in observance of Women’s History Month. It was one of several documentaries screened in March for PEF members by the committee.

The “9 to 5” documentary was made available to PEF through the Undergraduate Labor Institute at Cornell University. The documentary was featured on the PBS series “Independent Lens” and you can still stream it through March 31. A panel discussion following the screening included the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Julia Reichert, as well as Kim Cook of Cornell, Lane Windham of Georgetown University and PEF leaders including Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie, Tamara Martin and Scarlett Ahmed. PEF staff member Suzanne Zabek also participated, representing USW Local 9265.

Women who entered the national workforce during WWII were kicked to the curb when the country’s men returned from military service. Gradually, the women returned as secretaries and clerical workers, for rock-bottom pay and no respect.

The documentary lets the women tell their own story of how they formed the actual 9 to 5 organization in Boston in the 1970s. With the help of actress and activist Jane Fonda, it inspired the popular comedy film “Nine to Five” starring Fonda, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman in 1980, as well as a TV series that lasted five seasons, and a Broadway musical in 2009.

Those fed-up women in Boston launched much more than that. They woke America up to the fact that women were sick and tired of being stuck as entry-level office workers, who were exploited, ignored and disrespected by their male-dominated employers. Their 9 to 5 movement in Boston quickly spread to other cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, and across the country.

“People didn’t realize women had this kind of power. It was shocking,” one of the early leaders said.

Another woman recalled a day when she was working alone in an office through lunch, and a man stopped by. He leaned in through the door, looked straight at her and said, “No one’s here!”

Just as Black men in the Civil Rights Movement protested being called “boys,” and picketed with signs saying, “I am a man,” that same demeaning blanket of disrespect and invisibility obscured women in the workforce, and was summed up in a newspaper headline that read: “You’re a girl until the day you retire.”

When the women at a large company in Boston walked off their jobs, their bosses were stunned. The women demanded a meeting with management, but searched for a common issue on which to focus. The men had recently removed the tampon machines from women’s restrooms, so the women finally got the men to agree to reinstall the machines in some of the restrooms.

The women had big workplace issues such as better pay, a fair chance at promotions, an end to sexual harassment and, most important of all, respect. However, they came to realize they could not make meaningful change until they organized as labor unions. Labor unions, too, were dominated by men, and it took time for women at various employers to find union homes. The core group evolved into District Council 925 at the Service Employees International Union, where it continues today as Local 925, a sister SEIU affiliate of PEF.

As they organized union locals in the 1950s and early ‘60s, women in the Midwest found an outspoken, assertive role unfamiliar and disturbing. The organizers had to adapt.

“We couldn’t have a ‘demonstration’ because it was considered too radical, so we had ‘actions,’ one of the leaders said.

“I’m clear that I stand on the shoulders of these women,” said PEF Secretary-Treasurer Wilkie. She explained that early in her career she worked for a global financial institution, and her opportunities were improved by the increased sensitivity triggered by class action lawsuits brought by women and minorities, and increased government regulation and scrutiny of the banking and insurance industries.

Wilkie said the vibrant feminist and labor activism of the 1960s and ‘70s have not just helped her get traction in her career, they have also made her more conscious of how people are affected by national issues, such as increased privatization of public services.

“Privatization hurts women disproportionately,” she said, because it removes jobs from civil service career ladders that help women advance based on merit.

Whether it’s gender or race, equal treatment and opportunity tend to break down, Wilkie said, “unless you actively work in the other direction.”

PEF Everyday Heroines!

During Women’s History month, New York State Public Employees Federation (PEF) recognizes and celebrates women-identified members who have demonstrated significant accomplishments or leadership.

Click here to learn how to nominate a PEF Everyday Heroine today!