The fifth annual DC LaborFest—anchored by the 18th DC Labor FilmFest runs May 1-31 in Washington, D.C. Check out the complete festival schedule, including event descriptions, film trailers and links to RSVP or buy tickets. The essay below, by Working America’s Karen Nussbaum, is featured in the LaborFest’s 2018 program guide.
My favorite moment this awards season was when Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton came out on stage together at the Emmys. The stars of “9 to 5” conversationally used the most famous words in the 1980 smash hit—“sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”—and got a prolonged standing ovation. “How cool,” I thought, “to be associated with an iconic movie.”
The movie about turning the tables on a boorish boss was inspired by 9to5, the national organization of women office workers I helped organize in 1973. And it was a hit because it reflected the hidden truths of an invisible workforce, 20 million women office workers. Fonda and the writers spent hours talking with our members. The movie changed the national debate about women and work because there was an organized national movement ready to turn the popular farce into action.
“9 to 5” may not be “Battleship Potemkin” or another of Sergei Eisenstein’s great works, “Strike,” which is one of the many exciting films featured in this year’s DC Labor FilmFest. The festival also celebrates the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, swinging from “Swing Shift,” another film about working women with a great cast to “The Young Karl Marx,” which may have you tearing up at the dramatic reading of "The Communist Manifesto" at the end. (OK, I did.) You’ll have the opportunity to see a score of movies that touch on many facets of working people’s fights over the past century.
But “9 to 5” (shown at the DC Labor FilmFest in 2005, when Jane Fonda was presented with the festival’s Labor Arts Award) has particular resonance, and it’s not just #MeToo.
9to5, the organization, captured a moment when working-class and middle-class women found themselves co-workers in offices across the nation, and their common cause across class and race was explosive. The surge of women into the workforce in the 1970s hit the wall of few job opportunities for women. Nearly 25% of women worked as clericals. The next biggest occupation, nurses, trailed at 9%, followed by teachers and cashiers at only 5% each.
And that’s how it felt. If you were a college graduate, you might become a nurse or a teacher, but you were more likely to get an office job alongside of high school graduates. As organizers at 9to5, we knew how important this was. So we fostered common cause among the lifelong insurance workers who trained men to be their own supervisors and the publishing house employees who weren’t allowed anywhere near a book.
By the mid-1980s, employers caved. In the face of organizing, lawsuits and popular opinion (thanks, at least in part, to the “9 to 5” movie) they opened professional and managerial jobs to college-educated women—women like their daughters. The women’s workforce settled into a class structure that looked like that of men. Inequities still abound—women still earn only 80% of what men earn, and the pay gap is nearly twice as great for Latina and African American women. And as we know from #MeToo, sexual harassment is still pervasive.
Changes in jobs and working conditions are creating common cause across class and race again today. Since the 1970s, employers have put a lid on wages and cut way back on benefits. When I started working I earned minimum wage, but I had five days of vacation and five paid sick days—and that was common. Today, only about half of private-sector employees have paid sick or leave time. Employers have abandoned this responsibility to such a degree that voters are turning to city and state legislation to require paid leave. More than 60% of workers had pensions in the 1970s—today only 23% have a pension and the benefits are only half as valuable. And we know health care remains unaffordable for too many.
Working America sees it when we talk to people at the doors. "I used to think of myself as middle class, but I guess you'd have to say I'm working class," is a common comment. "I have a middle-class job, but I can't afford a middle-class house or car," one man told me. "I'll never be able to afford to retire," older members worry. I may be drawing more from E.P. Thompson than the young Karl Marx, but it looks to me like economic conditions are changing class consciousness.
So, as Dolly sings in the song, “You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends,” and the next big blockbuster will reflect a resurgent workers’ movement that builds common cause across class and race on economic issues. In the meantime, have fun at the movies!
Karen Nussbaum is a co-founder of 9to5, and a board member of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.