GENA KITTNER For the State Journal
In the 1970s and 1980s, office workers across the country began to make it clear that they wanted to be more than coffee makers and meal pickers. These women wanted wage increases and a harassment-free work environment.
As a result, the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women labor movement was born and eventually inspired a hit film starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Author Ellen Cassedy, one of the founders of the movement, whose recent book ‘Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Union and the Iconic Film’, with a foreword by Jane Fonda, will be published on Tuesday, gives readers details and perspective on the labor movement, and how these struggles and challenges are still relevant today.
Cassedy will discuss her new book with activist Ciara Fox, who leads the Fight for $15 organization in Wisconsin, during a virtual event at the A Room of One’s Own bookstore on Sept. 6.
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Q: How would you describe the book “Working 9 to 5”?
A: “Working 9 to 5” is a first-person account of the female office worker movement that began in the 1970s. We spread across the country…eventually our headquarters became Milwaukee. The book came about because I started to feel there were a lot of people who could really benefit from our story. There is a resurgence of activism at work today that reminds me of where we were in the 1970s. Support for unions is skyrocketing. Working women and men encounter the same kinds of problems as we do. I feel like we are hearing a lot of new voices and new strategies in the workplace. I hope readers of my book will learn from my story and feel inspired to follow their own path. When we started…feeling united as women and as workers, we went looking for people who had done it before. We found good advisers, but we forged our own path.
Q: What is your background, both with the 9 to 5 movement and as a writer?
A: I was a leader in the 9 to 5 organization in the 1980s and then became a speechwriter for the Service Employees International Union. I ended up writing a book about my family background in Jewish Lithuania and how a country is recovering from genocide. Then, in January 2017, when the Women’s March was held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I looked at the huge, huge crowd of women and it reminded me of how I felt in the 1970s. , when women who had never been to a meeting before, had never chaired a meeting, we all began to act in ways that surprised us and the world.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book?
A: I took out my old diaries and my old boxes of papers. And I went to the Boston, Chicago, and Detroit archives, where the labor archives are. I went through dozens of interviews with leaders in our organization and in our movement. It took time.
Q: Were you surprised by what some of your research showed?
A: One of my goals was to write a book like the kind of book I craved when I started in the organization (9 to 5). What’s it like to work in a team with other people day in and day out? I was determined to write a book that really, really conveyed the texture of everyday life (at that time). I think I expected to fall more on the side of “it was so hard”, but that’s not what I found, even in my journals. I just felt lifted by the ball we had, the way we loved each other and the changes we were seeing. It was so exciting. I even found a small piece of paper with a quote that read “In our youth, our hearts were touched by fire.” What a privilege it was to live in a time when I could be involved in change.
Q: What kinds of changes have you seen?
A: We have ripped off millions of dollars in back pay and raises (corporations). We inspired Jane Fonda to make her movie “9 to 5”. (Song by Dolly Parton) “Working 9 to 5” has become an anthem for working people everywhere. Leadership positions have opened up to female college graduates. Sexual harassment has been declared illegal. Many bosses have learned to source their own coffee. At first, women in their 60s complained that men 30 years younger called them “girl”. We put the bosses on notice.
Q: How did the 9 to 5 movement turn into a movie? Did you work closely with Jane Fonda?
A: Many people don’t know that it was our movement that inspired the film, and not the other way around. Jane Fonda knew one of our leaders, Karen Nussbaum. (Fonda) was a celebrity who really listened. She had strong opinions and she was very focused. She was determined not to make a didactic film and quickly decided it had to be a comedy. She sent a team of writers to meet with our members.
Q: How did these meetings go?
A: In a meeting, it was a little stiff (until) one of the writers asked the question, “Have you ever thought about killing your boss?” There was a moment of silence…then the room exploded. Everyone had thought about killing their boss. These fantasies entered the film and really brought it to life. At first, the studio moguls weren’t sure the film would succeed. We had to write them a note (saying) “1 in 3 working women is an office worker. We do not see ourselves reflected on the screen. Make this movie and women will respond. And they did. It was one of the biggest box office hits of all time.
Q: What was it like seeing the film on the big screen?
A: The atmosphere in the movie theater was electric. There’s a scene where Jane Fonda is sent to a room with a huge photocopier… and paper starts flying out of different holes in the machine. People were getting up in the theater and shouting “press the stop button!” (That excitement for the movie) gave us a huge boost.
Q: What progress and challenges are you still seeing in the workplace?
A: So-called family issues are now an integral part of many human resources departments and union agreements. Yet while leadership positions have opened up to some women, many women are stuck in the lowest jobs. I think in some ways it’s even harder to be a worker today than it was 50 years ago. It was a surprise back then that it took two jobs per family to put food on the table. Now it takes two jobs per worker. Labor rights are still very weak for most workers. It’s scary to start getting organized. What’s on the books is not the reality for most people and the law really needs to be strengthened.
Q: Ciara Fox from Wisconsin’s Fight for $15 will join you in your virtual chat at A Room of One’s Own. How are your two causes related?
A: The Fight for $15 is a very interesting initiative, similar to what we did in some ways. Traditionally, unions went workplace by workplace (to implement change). Fight for $15 targets an entire city at a time with the goal of minimum wage being $15 an hour. Ciara is part of that effort in Milwaukee.
“I just felt lifted by the ball we had, the way we loved each other and the changes we were seeing. It was so exciting.”