June 6, 2012 | Economic Opportunity
9to5: Working Hard for Working Women
9to5 makes women’s voices heard in the debate on issues like pay equity that directly affect working women.
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK CITY -- Seven years before Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton upended their sexist, unfair workplace in the popular 1980 movie Nine to Five, a small group of female clerical workers in Boston banded together to fight for better working conditions. The problems they wanted to address had not yet entered the American lexicon, let alone its consciousness.
“They came together to organize around issues they were facing at work that at the time didn’t even have names: sexual harassment, pay equity, and work-family policies,” said Linda Meric, the Executive Director of 9to5, an organization that promotes the rights of working women. Their real-life struggle, she said, inspired the movie.
In the nearly 40 years since that gathering, 9to5 has grown to a 15,000-member national organization with offices in California, Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin and members in 50 states. Often working first at the state and local levels, the group has played a key role in passing federal legislation that affects millions of working women. In 1991, they helped pass the Civil Rights Act, which recognized the right of individuals to seek compensation, punitive damages and attorney’s fees for emotional and psychological damages caused by discrimination. They also helped pass the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and helped extend unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed workers.
“We advocate for federal change because we know that these are issues that affect women not only in one state but throughout our country,” said Ms. Meric. “But one of the strategies that we have been most successful with is winning campaigns for change at the state and local levels, which provide real improvement for the women in those states, and educates the public and builds momentum for change at the federal level.”
The organization uses its strong grassroots presence in the states to educate and engage voters, both organizing its members as spokeswomen and reaching out to the public with a non-partisan voter registration campaign, the Election Connection.
“We register, educate and mobilize women to vote, and use that program to involve them in some of the ongoing policy and organizing campaigns that the organization is leading,” she said.
Their constituents develop the campaigns themselves, put forward the policy solutions that they feel work best for them, and serve as spokeswomen in their communities and in front of legislatures.
“We have really changed the debate and lifted women’s voices so that we are part of the debate on these issues,” said Ms. Meric.
In Colorado, they helped pass the Wage Transparency Act in 2008, which prohibits employers from taking disciplinary action against workers for sharing compensation information.
“That may seem pretty basic, but many employers either prohibit or strongly discourage employees from sharing wage information with each other, and information about your wages and coworkers’ wages is a critical piece of information that women and others need to determine if their being treated fairly, and to do something about it if they’re not,” said Ms. Meric. “We heard this issue over and over from the members of 9to5. They suspected that they were being paid less than the men in their workplace, but they couldn’t really prove it because they weren’t allowed to talk about it with each other or ask other workers questions about what their pay was.”
Transparency around wages is an important provision of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which is pending in Congress.
In Atlanta, one of their members, fresh out of their annual leadership conference in Washington, D.C., used her new leadership training to launch a campaign that prohibits the city from asking potential employees about prior criminal convictions on their job applications.
“It’s a huge step forward for the many individuals who at some point have had some type of conviction which has nothing to do with their abilities and skills to be able to do a job, but has effectively kept them from even getting an interview for that job,” said Ms. Meric.
There have been some steps back, too. This past April, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker repealed the state’s Equal Pay Act of 2009. But Ms. Meric is confident that her side will one day win the battle for economic justice for women.
“It’s a long struggle, and we find ourselves fighting defensive battles as well as working for proactive, positive policy change,” she said. “But I always have hope and optimism because at 9to5, we have a vision. Our vision is an economically just world where poverty and discrimination have been eliminated, where the contributions of women are recognized and valued and where all women and their families thrive.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.