Raises, Not Roses

Black and white photo of women working at desks in open office space

Susan Lazarrus

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 9 No. 4, "Working Women: A Handbook of Resources, Rights, and Remedies." Find more from that issue here.

“When my son graduated from high school, I decided it was time for me to do something for myself after years of doing clerical work. I wanted to work helping women in dead-end jobs like me. I had learned a lot about employment counseling during my years as a secretary for job-training agencies, but when I told my supervisor that I wanted a position as counselor, he laughed. To save money, I was downgraded to typist even though I retained my duties as secretary. Every time I think about it, it makes me mad. Now I’m an organizer of women office workers and we’re going to put an end to these types of things!” 

So explains Verna Barksdale, one of the two organizers for Atlanta Working Women (AWW), the new membership organization of office workers started in the fall of 1980 to “win raises, rights and respect” for the 200,000 clerical workers in metropolitan Atlanta. Atlanta Working Women is one of 13 affiliates of Working Women, the National Association of Office Workers. AWW’s first activity was to conduct an “office workers job survey,” which asked questions about salaries, benefits, promotions, job posting, training programs, affirmative action and working conditions. 

Like office workers across the country, women office workers in Atlanta have begun to realize that low wages, little respect and even less opportunity are not individual problems. And individual solutions to these problems do not work. While a few women “climb the ladder,” the hard truth is that 83 percent of the 800 women office workers surveyed by AWW earn less than $ 15,000 yearly. While each woman must be assertive in getting what she needs on the job, one woman alone trying to combat sex discrimination, sex stereotyping and historically low wages for “women’s work” is going to be very frustrated. 

“The minority woman office worker faces a deeper problem than those already terrible ones of white office workers: race discrimination,” says Barksdale. “Often we are not hired into low-paying, low-status pink-collar jobs. When we are, the fact that the pay is so low hurts more because often minority women are the sole support of their households. After being hired we are often excluded from promotions and job training. Add to that the possibility of being paid less than other women doing the same job and the personal prejudices of co-workers and bosses. All this means increased job-related stress and frustration. 

“The bi-racial makeup of AWW and other working women’s organizations is crucial to the success of the women’s labor movement. In Atlanta, as in most major cities, most organizations are not segregated, per se, but they are not really integrated either. Consequently, the issues of these groups and their goals are viewed as only for blacks or for whites. However, when women come together from different races they begin to realize that the feelings of powerlessness and frustration are a common thread that runs between them. Their lack of knowledge of one another gives way to feelings of WE CAN DO IT. We can accomplish our goals together.” Or, as AWW member Katrenna Smith said at the close of AWW’s public hearing on the status of women office workers, “There’s strength in numbers.” 

That strength is building, through the involvement of young and old and black and white office workers. In its first year, AWW concentrated on raising the issues, educating the public about the problems faced by office workers, and educating women about their rights and real value in the work force through visible public action. This step was crucial, to create a climate in which women will have the knowledge, confidence and support to speak out or to demand better working conditions. 

The public needs to know about the situation of Vicki Hyde, an early member of AWW, a full-time accounting clerk for one of the large retail department store chains. Her husband left her with three young girls to support on less than $8,000 in 1980. When she applied for a credit card from her employer (thinking that would help her establish credit under her own name), her application was refused. “Insufficient funds,” they said. “But insufficient salary is the real problem,” explains Hyde. “Women have all kinds of reasons for joining Atlanta Working Women: sexual harassment, having to make coffee, discrimination in promotions and extra trouble if you’re a black woman. But my problem is low pay.” 

Low pay affects black women most significantly, as shown by the responses to the AWW survey question, “Do minority women tend to hold the lower-paying positions?” More than half the women in insurance, banking, education, government, utilities and communications said “Yes.” Interestingly, only 17 percent of the law firm office workers said minority women were in lowerpaying positions. However, more than one legal secretary noted, “There are no blacks at all.”

Next to low pay, one of the most common complaints brought by office workers to AWW is lack of respect for the value of the work performed. One legal secretary reported being asked to sew a button on her boss’s shirt — while he was wearing it. AWW member Susan Miller was told to take the boss’s wife’s penny loafers to the shoe shop for a shine. However, she no longer does any personal errands for her boss after telling him that she felt demeaned by his requests, which also wasted time needed to fulfill her more important job responsibilities. Miller says it was her involvement in AWW that gave her the self-confidence to protest treatment she previously felt obliged to endure. 

Atlanta Working Women also works with groups of co-workers seeking advice about how to deal with job problems such as no promotions for women and minorities or lack of adequate fire escape plans. In such cases, the women are advised of their rights, protected by the National Labor Relations Act, to pursue the desired improvements as a group. They are assisted in deciding how to get enough support rallied behind them and how to successfully approach management about the problem. One group in an insurance company in Atlanta succeeded in getting the company to initiate a job posting program, so that employees could find out about openings within the firm and apply before they were filled. AWW also helps women evaluate the possibility of unionizing as a way to secure better working conditions. 

Other affiliate organizations of Working Women have won considerable improvements for office workers as a result of bringing public pressure to bear on employers with discriminatory personnel practices. Cleveland Working Women’s campaign  against National City Bank resulted in a $ 15 million settlement issued by the Department of Labor for back pay for women and minority employees. Baltimore Working Women’s “Clean Up Banking Campaign” resulted in pay increases at five banks totaling $2 million and the institution of a job posting program at one bank with a record of discrimination against women and blacks. In Boston, 9 to 5 Organization for Office Workers has exposed the John Hancock Insurance Company for its key role in an employers’ organization called the Boston Survey Group which 9 to 5 alleges sets clerical wages in violation of anti-trust laws. 9 to 5  has targeted the company, demanding across-the-board pay increases for clericals, child-care provisions, training programs and resignation from the Boston Survey Group. 

From Boston to Seattle and Los Angeles . . . and now Atlanta, 13 organizations of women office workers (all affiliates of Working Women, the National Association of Office Workers) are winning changes that bring about improvements in the working lives of clerical workers. But women in small cities and towns scattered in companies around the country are finding that smaller efforts bear fruit as well. “The Department of Labor told me to get in touch with Working Women for action on my job problem. Working Women helped me win $50,000 in back pay for myself and six other women who had all suffered discrimination at my bank. We also won salary increases and more promotions,” boasts Faye Hewlett, assistant cashier at a Kentucky bank. 

Another victory for collective action was at a small savings and loan association in Georgia where the women employees called a meeting with the association president to present their feelings about the poor promotion record of women in the association. Recognizing that he would soon lose the backbone of his operation, he developed a new organizational chart and a plan that resulted in the first promotions for women. As the association’s first female branch manager explained, “My salary certainly is not competitive and all this turnover of women at my branch is poor management. The pay is too low!” Now, 16 months later, the promoted women are working on a “game plan” to get 25 to 30 percent pay hikes for all employees. 

In Knoxville, Tennessee, a group of office workers sponsored a series of workshops on “job survival skills” which inspired one woman to convince the clerical staff in the photography company where she works to meet with their boss and negotiate for sick days, cost-of-living increases and other improvements. After winning some of what they wanted, their next question was, “What union can we join?”

Not every Southern city has a large enough clerical work force to support a staffed, citywide organization of office workers like Atlanta Working Women. But it is clear that the word is getting around that women are no longer putting up with discrimination, dead-end jobs, low pay, sexual harassment or running personal errands for the boss. Office workers are getting together with co-workers, forming committees, asking for raises, taking public action, holding workshops, researching the union option and learning how to organize.

A Union for Office Workers 

In March, 1981, Working Women, the National Association of Office Workers, announced a joint organizing effort with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Called District 925 (after “nine-to-five,” the working hours in many offices), it creates a union option, a collective bargaining alternative, for office workers. District 925 will be a unit within SEIU’s Clerical Division and will lead in the organization of new groups of office workers throughout the country. SEIU already represents 35,000 office workers and has a higher percentage of women on its executive board than any other AFL-CIO union. SEIU represents many other traditionally low-paid workers such as hospital, service, maintenance and custodial employees. 

Karen Nussbaum, president of Working Women and acting president of District 925, announced the joint venture. “Working Women knows the problems of office workers and we know how to communicate with the women who largely comprise the office work force. SEIU knows how to collectively bargain for and represent workers and how to pry decent and humane contracts from the toughest of employers. We think it is an unbeatable combination.” Interested office workers may call District 925’s toll-free phone number for information — (800) 424-2936.