Karen Nussbaum

“I have had the opportunity to fight the good fight my whole life and to do that with wonderful people.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, August 2020

[Edited Transcript]

KN:  My name is Karen Nussbaum. I was born in Chicago in 1950.

JW:  What was your life like before you learned about or got involved in the women’s movement?

KN:  I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in a Chicago suburb. It was almost entirely white. I had enlightened, Jewish, although not religious parents and hated life and was tormented by how bad things were in the world. Then I went to college and that was awesome because you could do anything you wanted. I became very politically active in the student movement and anti-war movement. I quit school after a year and went to Cuba to cut sugar cane with the Venceremos Brigade in 1970. And then when I came back, I moved to Boston and threw myself into the women’s movement.

JW:  How did you learn about the women’s movement in Boston?

KN:  It was just everywhere. There must have been a thousand local little women’s organizations. For example, my roommates and I started one, everybody had one or two that they started in the early ’70s. Ours was called Female Revolutionary Education; we taught auto mechanics, street medicine and silk screening, which was how we used to make posters and then we put them up all over the place.

I was also part of a women’s karate class. When I would go to my job, on Wednesdays I carried in my tote bag a brick that was wrapped in rope because part of our women’s karate class was to toughen up our knuckles by pounding our fists into bricks. I had another little women’s group where our self-appointed job was to write up anti-war comic strips using Little Lulu, a well-known comic strip character, as the protagonist, and then we’d mimeograph them and passed them out on street corners. They were designed for women as the audience.

JW:  You did recruit women to your various classes and activities?

KN:  Sure. But the most important activity came out of the fact that I had to get a job, I had to pay the rent and so on. I got a job that was most typical for women in those days and that was as a clerical worker. I came to realize after some time that I could be organizing on the job. It was all women, and everybody was quietly seething. And those of us who were activists knew how to call a meeting. So that’s how we started 9to5.

JW:  What were you seething about?

KN:  Oh, the petty injustices – we didn’t even have the knowledge to be angry about our pay. We thought it was a step up from factory work, for example. I had a friend who was working in an office and her initials were M. A. and her co-workers initials were A. M. and her boss could not remember the names of either of these two women or which one was which, because their initials were similar. I had a student who walked into the office one day and looked me dead in the eye and said, “Isn’t anybody here?”

JW:   As if you were invisible?

KN:  Exactly. And we were invisible. There were 20 million of us, but we were like the wallpaper.

JW:  Please tell the people in the future about 9to5, what your original goals were.

KN :  The idea for 9to5 started really as I walked a picket line for a group of waitresses who had decided to unionize. They worked in one little restaurant called Cronin’s and they got fed up getting patted on the butt or not getting their tips or whatever it was that put them over the edge. And so, these eight women created their own union, which they called the Harvard Square Waitresses Organizing Committee. Now, they had no idea about power, but they did have a big idea about anger.

The women’s movement came out to support them and every Wednesday night I had picket duty. That was when this idea came to me that you could organize women, not just in general, but in relation to their bosses. And that was a way to exercise power that could yield both substantial results and took it out of the realm of just the personal. You wouldn’t be fighting for either legal changes or to get respect from your husband or boyfriend, but for structural changes in the economy through your relationship to the boss.

That idea percolated for some time. We created an organization where I worked at Harvard, which we called the Harvard Office Workers Committee, which met and didn’t know very much about what to do either but met. And then we expanded it out to a group of ten of our friends who are all working as clericals in insurance, some in hospitals, a factory, all different kinds of workplaces. And over about a year or so, we came to this idea of creating a citywide organization for women office workers. We produced a newsletter and would hand it out in front of subway and bus stops as people walked into work. And with that, we held our first meeting at the YWCA in downtown Boston in 1973 and 150 women showed up. It was phenomenal. And from there, it just took off.

JW:  Two questions. One is, what was the original goal and how did you come up with the name?

KN:   The goal was rights and respect for women office workers. That was our slogan. What was more important was the method. It was to organize women as workers and to make our demands in relation to the workplace, and we would see where we could gain the most traction, and that the demands would be driven by the members. The name came from a popular ’50s comic strip called Nine to Five. It had a stupid, overbearing boss with a sexy secretary. But the point was that we weren’t creating an organization called Women Workers of the World Unite. 

You didn’t have to have an opinion about women’s work. You didn’t need to come with a political line. To make it open for anybody  we’re just going to call it after the normal hours of the workday for women office workers. Our approach represented the idea, don’t make your words be the enemy of your ideas. Build a mass organization that’s really open to everybody, that gives people experiences that move them, that doesn’t set up rhetorical barriers.

JW: Can you talk about some early effort, some early skirmishes or victories?

KN:  Sure. The very first thing we did was to call a meeting with the head of the Chamber of Commerce. So, he came to this meeting and about 50 women came to this meeting. Then we demanded a meeting with the entire Chamber of Commerce. And  he said, “We won’t meet until we  see some statistics”. So, we looked up some stuff and it made us even more mad. And that’s when we found out that we were such a massive part of the workforce. 

At the time, the popular view of the typical American worker was a man in a hard hat. But in fact, the biggest sector of the workforce was women office workers, clerical workers. But no one would have guessed that. There was not a single representation of us in popular media. The last time there had been anyone in popular media would have been like Della Street on the TV show Perry Mason. We thought office workers had fancier jobs than factory workers. In fact, factory workers made more than we did. 

We may have dressed up to go to work, but they took home more pay, which, you know, now we understand was a function of being in a union as opposed to being this highly exploitable workforce of largely new, women workers. That was one example. Going after the employer representatives and realizing that we needed more tools to actually extract anything from them.

Over the years, we created committees by industry. We had a publishing committee and our members  went on to sue six different publishing houses and win in every single publishing house. We attacked the insurance industry for low pay, and we had insurance companies like John Hancock, Liberty Mutual which we targeted for  big public campaigns, which ultimately raised pay for the women, sometimes by 10 percent, and created new avenues for women to become managers.

We brought in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, OFCCP,  which sued National City Bank in Cleveland and targeted other banks. We were on the way to making big gains when Reagan came in 1980, and we got a secret call from the OFCCP saying they were being pressured to drop the case. We made real gains for women. We also had this massive effect on the way women workers throughout, but especially women office workers saw ourselves as agents of our own lives and of change in our economy. Over the years I would meet women from Texas or New Hampshire or places that we had never been who would say, “Oh, 9to5, that was really important to me. I would talk about that with my friends.” And that was happening all over the place.

JW:  So, you did have members from all over the country.

KN:   Ultimately we did. Our first chapter was in Boston. In other places, women’s organizations were growing that were focused on clerical workers, in New York or San Francisco, Chicago. And then over time we also helped create another 20 organizations. Almost all of those came under the umbrella of 9to5, which was also called the National Association of Working Women. We had a big national organization with chapters in a lot of places. And then, of course, this was all propelled even more with the movie 9 to 5

The movie 9 to 5 came out of my friendship with Jane Fonda. I had been very active in the anti-war movement. From 1972 to 1975 I was part of the Indo-China peace campaign, which was the organization that Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden created. This was at a time when a lot of people thought that the war was winding down, but it wasn’t. Jane and I  had become good friends. 

When the war ended in 1975, Jane wanted to restart her career as an actress. And she had heard me talk about all this organizing that I’d been doing with women workers. It was her idea to make a movie two or three years later, so we helped her  with writing a pitch letter to the studio.  Most importantly, she and the writers came to meet with about 40 of our members in Cleveland one night to talk with them about what work was like and what made them angry and so on.

And at one-point Jane and the writers  asked, “Have you ever dreamed of getting even with the boss?” And that is what really blew the roof off of the meeting. Those stories are the stories that are in the movie. And that’s why the movie is so successful, because it wasn’t some writer making up what they thought women were experiencing or feeling or thinking. It was the women themselves. And so, it was a huge success. And because it was a farce, it was kind of like 9to5 itself.  You didn’t have to come into a movie that was going to educate you about work. This wasn’t going to be a drama. This wasn’t going to be something that you had to already have an opinion about. 

This was going to be a comedy. And you walked in probably with your boyfriend and you were in stitches. And he’s wondering what’s going on. And you walk out thinking, oh, yeah, those attitudes toward women, that is outrageous. And so, what had been a question before, is there discrimination in the workforce, became ludicrous. How could you even question it? It completely changed the debate. Now it became a question of what you were going to do about it. 

Right around that time,  we started our own national union because what we saw we could accomplish with 9to5 as an association was this massive change of public opinion. and these fights that could make incidental changes, some of them very significant But they didn’t result in  permanent power in the workplace. We created a sister organization, a union, that became part of the Service Employees Union. You could make your choice. Do you want to be in the association where we could wage a big  public fight, or do you want to join the union? And that’s where you can gain real power in your workplace.

JW:  And then you basically switched over to the SEIU?

KN:  Well, I ran both for most of those years and that was one of the ways that we kept the two organizations so closely tied as a single strategy. We started the union in Boston in 1975. We started 9to5 the association in 1973.  We called the union Local 925, and then ultimately District 925 when it became national. I was the director of both of those organizations up until 1993 when I joined the Clinton administration.

JW:  How was that possible to do both?

KN:  It’s possible because we had such a fantastic team, we had such fantastic organizers and we had a culture of doing everything together – no one was a star. Our successes belonged to everybody and our failures were ones that we shared as well. It was a way of organizing that encouraged leadership and dispersed power. It meant I could do my job, which was to keep the organizations in tandem and work with the union leadership, raise money for the association, and balance the very different worlds, while the chapters of 9to5 the association and District 925 the union  were continuing to do work on the ground.

JW:  When you say a very different world, obviously the unions in those earlier years were men. Were you one of the only women to be running a whole district?

KN:  Yeah, It was a period when younger organizers who came out of the antiwar movement and the women’s movement were going into unions. But it was almost entirely male leadership. In my region, the Midwest region of SEIU, I think I was the only woman who ran a union. Part of our deal with SEIU was that we weren’t going to just become organizers with a local union, but we were going to get a charter to start our own organization. We would make all the decisions about it and control our own money and build the organization from the ground up  It was actually a big deal because we didn’t start with any members. We were able to get  SEIU to take a bet on us that we would do a good job of organizing. We ended up having as good a winning record as any other union in SEIU over those years.

JW:  What was the advantage of being connected to SEIU over just the association?

KN:  For example, one-time 9to5 the association in Boston went to a publishing house to demand maternity benefits. One of our members from there was pregnant and there were no maternity benefits. Eight of our members  met with management  and the company said, “Oh, we’ll take that under advisement and get back to you.” They never got back to us. We thought that’s terrible, there should be something that forces them to get back to us. And we realized, it’s called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law which provides the right to organize a union. 

The NLRA says if you want power in the workplace, organize a majority in the workplace and the employer is obligated to bargain with you. We realized we could organize fights on a single issue like maternity benefits and even win, but you’d have to start all over again for the next issue. We wanted permanent power in a workplace that could have your voice represented all the time,  could solve problems as they came up and could help determine what the working conditions would be like. That’s very different from what you get out of any association.

With 9to5 , there was like zero backlash from women. We had this very big appeal. What we didn’t realize we were going to slam right into was this massive corporate response that was part of an anti-union wave that began in the mid ’70s and really took hold in the nineteen eighties. We had every reason to think that we were going to have a big success. In 1980, that’s when we announced that we would become a national union as part of SEIU. And that announcement was the very same week as the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association) strike and the lockout by Reagan.

These two trends just crashed into each other: women workers demanding a voice on the job and corporations not having anything with it. Employers gave some women the opportunity to advance – that doesn’t cost them much.  But overall they took away benefits and lowered pay. They split the workforce – some women will become professionals and managers, the majority will go into even more insecure, lower paid jobs without benefits and they did that to the men, too. And that’s really the story of the ’80s.

JW:  You obviously recouped as we moved into the ’90s.

KN:  Unionizing took a nosedive during those years. And so did working women’s organizations. What you had in the ’90s and starting in the mid ’70s, but really taking hold in the ’80s is a major shift in corporate strategy where they decide they’re going to compete globally, not on the high road with countries like Japan or Germany or the Nordic countries with better educated workforces that have better pay and more security, but instead competing with countries like Korea and the low-wage workforces. That’s a major shift in corporate strategy. 

They go on a big union busting spree, taking out what had been formerly highly unionized work industries, including auto, and became less unionized by moving their plants to the South; meat-packing, other kinds of factory work. And so, there’s this massive attack on unions. And then the big symbol, of course, is the lockout by Reagan with PATCO, which says it’s open season on unions, take them out. We don’t actually have labor management cooperation at all. We don’t even have to pretend to. So that’s all happening. 

And at the same time, what you see is a shift from the experience that I had in the late ’60s and the ’70s where if you’ve got a problem you started an organization, to an increasingly individual approach. Women become increasingly self-reliant, but less powerful because the bottom is taken out from organization. Over those years, I would talk with women and we would have focus groups and other ways of gauging public opinion. When we first started 9to5, you’d say to women, so if you’ve got a problem on the job, what do you do about it? The people might say, “I’ll call NOW, or I could call 925, or maybe my congressperson or the mayor could help me.” 

Ten years later, you’d ask, and people would say, “Well, I talk to my coworkers,” and then over time people would be more likely to say, “Well, I’ll call my mother, or I pray to God.” And by 2000, women were just saying, “I just rely on myself.” There was this change in consciousness that takes collective action out of the equation over the same period that big corporations are totally upending the way the economy is going to work and in whose interests. 

You also have a cratering of women’s organizations, both on the level of a local women’s karate class, but also where you end up largely with abortion rights organizations as the only big mass organizations and NOW but at a reduced size and power. The story over all of those years is the disempowerment of women, but also of working people and those without, of every stripe.

JW:  How did your union organize in these conditions?

KN:  We were good organizers, but we were up against powerful opponents. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We organized a radio station and we thought of this as a local radio station and it had thirty-five employees. We got a majority easily. But then they hired the biggest union busting law firm in New York City. Alfred T. DeMaria was the name of the firm and he personally came to Boston to run the anti-union campaign. And we lost because it just became overwhelming. 

I once went to my labor lawyer’s office because we had something where we were getting smashed by some union busting firm. And I ran into an organizer with the Electrical Workers Union, the IBEW, and he says, “You guys run into trouble all the time. That doesn’t happen to us. We don’t get beat up.” And that’s because they were in an industry that had 30 years of collective bargaining relationships with their employers. 

What had been the norm was no longer the norm. And no employer wanted to allow unionization to take hold in an unorganized  industry, the biggest industrial group in the country, which was clerical workers. Ultimately, the union ended up with around 30,000 members but it didn’t organize on a massive scale.

It wasn’t my idea, but when Bill Clinton won in 1992, the president of SEIU, John Sweeney, asked me if I’d be interested in trying to get the job as the director of the Women’s Bureau in the US Department of Labor. 

I agreed, we put my name forward, and Robert Reich, who was the new Secretary of Labor, hired me. That was a lot of fun. It was just tremendous. The Women’s Bureau is a real backwater. It doesn’t have a mandate; you don’t enforce a law like most of the other agencies within the Department of Labor. But that also gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do, so we did all of this amazing outreach to women in every single kind of job all around the country. 

We met with women in 40 cities, every kind of work, flight attendants and aerospace workers and day care workers and grocery store clerks. We also got to play a role in some specific fights. I held a hearing for cocktail waitresses in Las Vegas about the problems in their industry. We met with management, the community and the workers on strike at a walnut factory in northern California. We were able to highlight and intervene in this wide array of women and bring the power of the federal government behind us. 

We did this massive survey called Working Women Count,  and since we were the federal government we got daily newspapers all around the country to run our survey. And we had a thousand organizations that helped distribute it. It was in 10 different languages. And three hundred thousand women responded to it. It was the biggest survey outside of the US Census probably that has ever taken place. And it set an agenda. 

We’re moving along and then something really bad happens, like corporate power overwhelming our union strategy or in this case, Clinton loses the midterm elections big and there’s no way to move any legislative agenda because the Republicans have taken over the House and the Senate.

By 1996, there had been a big fight within the labor movement. I’m an organizer. That’s what I most like to do. There was a new insurgent team that was taking over at the AFL-CIO, led by John Sweeney, who had been the president of SEIU. I came over to the AFL-CIO to start a working women’s department and do those same kinds of things that I had done at the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, but this time from the perch of organizing working women.

JW:  I want to go back just a minute. You said you have an agenda; do you remember anything specific about the agenda?

KN:  Well, equal pay. In those years, maybe we were like seventy-eight cents on the dollar. It was up from fifty-seven cents on the dollar. I don’t know what it was, but it was still really low. The issues around work and family were urgent and we had a big focus on child care. We would have moved a big child care agenda if we’d had the House and the Senate. Also, more control over work hours, there was this whole set of issues around the fact that women were now expected to work and maintain their families 

Women were recognized as workers, but still expected to run the home and the kids and take care of everything. So, pensions, retirement security, health care,  it was the host of issues that really haven’t changed, I’m so sorry to say, and discrimination in hiring and promotion that have remained the same over my long career.

JW:  Let’s go back then to now you’re at the AFL-CIO.

KN:  The AFL-CIO is the federation of 50 or so unions. The unions do the organizing. And what we did was help the unions collaborate, help bring the issues of women more to the forefront within the trade union movement and public policy issues and so on. Again, this was in 1996 and there was a big wave of organizing. But then you hit the barrier of the stolen election in 2000 when Bush became president, unbelievably, and it just intensifies the attack on unions. And then you get 9/11 not long after that and everything shuts down. There’s no political space for anything for three or four years. 

Over that time, in the first Bush administration, we were still kind of reeling from the political ice age of the War on Terror. We started a new organization at the AFL-CIO, which we called Working America. We could see that there was an opportunity to restart a conversation with working people who a generation earlier would likely have been in unions if there hadn’t been this big attack on unions, and without the structure and influence of unions were easy prey to a right-wing social agenda. 

We did massive organizing in working class communities by going door to door, talking to people who didn’t have a union on the job – conversations with people about their most important economic issues and how they felt about them. Over the last 17 years, we’ve built Working America into an organization with three and a half million members, in working class communities, none of them are union members. About seventy five percent are white working class, the other twenty five percent are people of color. But they’re all people who otherwise wouldn’t be hearing from the progressive movement. 

I think of this as 9to5 with men and resources. A majority of our members are women, 55 percent probably. It’s the same idea — start fresh, open your door, let people in and start a new conversation with people that changes expectations and doesn’t get you into these culture wars or political wars that keep so many people out of our movement.

JW:  Wow. That’s a hard job I imagine.

KN:  It really works. It makes me the most optimistic person I know. And I’m the one who’s in daily conversation with Trump voters.  We can see that you can connect if you treat people with respect. And that’s what 9to5 was about. That’s what Working America is about. And I think that’s where you have to start if what you want to do is build a big base of support for your ideas.

JW:  So, is there more female leadership now in unions and organizations?

KN:  Absolutely. The leaders of the three biggest public sector unions are women. Randi Weingarten, who’s the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Lily Eskelsen García, who is the head of the NEA, the National Education Association, and Mary Kay Henry, who’s the head of SEIU. There are some more women who are heads of unions, but it’s not 50/50. There’s still a long way to go, but you’ll find women both in leadership and other levels within the organizations. Women are about half of the membership of unions. So, there’s still a lot of structural change that needs to take place, but a lot of progress has been made.

JW:  Do you see unionism picking up now?

KN:  Yes, and we noticed this a couple of years ago. Part of this is the degradation of middle-class work, which has been taking place over the last 10, 15 years. There aren’t stable jobs anymore, with the growth of the “gig” economy where teachers, in order to make ends meet, are Uber drivers on the side or working weekends as grocery store clerks. What were middle class jobs no longer support middle class lives. And so, there’s been a realignment over the last 10 years or so in what we would call class consciousness. 

People who used to think of themselves as middle class, don’t think of themselves as middle class anymore because it’s not their lived day to day experience. When your identity changes it makes you more open to changing the world and seeing the world around you differently and coming up with different solutions. And I think as a result, we now see the highest approval rating for unions in the last 50 years. Sixty-five percent of Americans say that they favor unions. An even higher number of people who are non-managerial support unions or say that they would join a union tomorrow if they could. 

And you see things like the “Fight for 15” – fast food workers deserve more power on the job. But you still have a labor law that is so stacked against working people that it’s really almost impossible to win a union election, particularly with a big multinational or big national company. We have the worst labor law in the West. There’s no one in an industrialized country that has to go through anti-union campaigns. Just start from there. The employer doesn’t have a say in whether you the worker should decide to be in a union or not in any other country.

Does your employer get to tell you what church you belong to? Well, why should the employer get to tell you whether you belong to a union or not? And that’s the standard: employer doesn’t have a say in any developed country except the United States. We need to modernize our labor laws so that what working people want becomes part of the mix. And let’s go back to the ’80s for just a second. 

The reason we don’t have this is because the Democratic Party, which used to be aligned with working people through the ’50s and ’60s, decided to leave us at the dance and do their business with corporate money. The Democratic Party and Democratic politicians over the ’80s and ’90s and into the ’00s soon came to collect as much corporate money as the Republicans. While there was a lot of lip service to unions, even when there was a supermajority in the Senate in the first Obama election, you couldn’t pass labor law reform. 

It would have been the most important legislation to have made economic change in this country, but it hasn’t happened over all those years. If Biden wins and the Democrats don’t pass labor law reform then all of us will continue to suffer in an economy that does just what’s happening right now in the pandemic, which is not care one bit to what’s happening for most working people.

JW:  What are you doing these days?

KN:  I retired a couple of years ago. I’m still very active with Working America. I’m on the board and we’ve got a big volunteer group so I’m doing the parts of the job that I always liked the most. And there’s a fantastic new leader, Matt Morrison and he’s much better at the things that you need to be good at, especially the analytics. He coined the phrase, “we need movement and we need math.”

So, I get to throw in my organizing expertise as a board member and I’m a citizen of my country. I go to protests. I’m one of these powerful grannies all over the country who are like the backbone of all the organizing that’s going on. So, I show up. That’s what I do.

JW:  How do you see the future for those women workers that you’ve always cared so much about?

KN: I think that the potential is certainly better now than it has been, that people are much more in a fighting frame of mind and that the horrible circumstances that most working people find themselves in creates a new possibility for different solutions. We have massively powerful adversaries and we have to be both excellent organizers and sophisticated about what we’re up against in order to make progress. And I want to emphasize the failure of the progressive movement to appreciate the importance of unions. The idea of a union is that working people come together in their workplace and practice democracy — they work out their differences, they vote, they control their dues, they elect their leaders. This is an experience of democracy that has been wiped out of most of our communities. All of those wonderful community organizations, especially unions, which used to power civic life don’t exist anymore. 

The union movement in the United States is the biggest women’s organization in the country. It’s the biggest multiracial organization in the country. It’s the biggest cross-class and may be one of the only cross-class institutions in this country. If people have different experiences with race, with what they’re entitled to, with politics, they can hear each other out in a local union and become friends and respect each other’s point of view and come together. 

If we don’t have those institutions, we have an economy like what we have today where people can barely survive, and we have a democracy like we have today, which is barely surviving either. We have to build democratic institutions, including and most importantly, in the workplace.

JW:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KN:  We tried to spark a movement of working women which would result in a wave of unionization.  History didn’t cooperate but both 9to5 the association and 925, SEIU are going strong.  And Working America is the missing piece of the puzzle in today’s progressive movement, connecting with working class people who are despairing or disaffected and looking for a positive way to make change.

I have been so lucky. I have had the opportunity to fight the good fight my whole life and to do that with wonderful people. That’s about joining together with other people, so I recommend it.