MAKERS Profile

Karen Nussbaum

Founder, 9to5 First Union for Secretaries

In this video

Karen Nussbaum on organizing women office workers and making change through humor and popular film.
Karen Nussbaum is an activist, labor leader, and founder of 9to5, a pioneering labor organization for female clerical workers. She has also served as Director of the Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department during the Clinton Administration, and as the head of the Working Women’s Department of the AFL-CIO from 1996-2001.   Nussbaum was born in Chicago in 1950, where her mother worked as a publicist and her father as an exterminator. She dropped out of the University of Chicago after a year and a half in order to move to Boston and devote herself to the anti-Vietnam movement. During this time she began supporting herself as a clerical worker at Harvard University, an experience that opened her eyes to the inequities and privations faced by middle and lower income working women throughout the United States.   By 1973, she and several colleagues had formed 9to5, an organization that sought to address these issues and forged a union for female office workers in 1975. In contrast to many labor organization, 9to5 focused on the plight of what Nussbaum calls “mainstream working women,” many of whom were performing the same work as men but for lower pay. Within just a few years the organization had gained national attention and, in 1981, it joined with the SEIU to form a partnership known as District 925.   Nussbaum served as director of District 925 from 1981 to 1993 when she stepped down to join the Clinton Administration. She held the position of director of the Department of Labor Women’s Issues—the highest ranking position devoted to women’s issues in the government—for three years before joining the AFL-CIO. She currently heads Working America, the community affairs affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

More From Karen

Where the Women’s Movement Failed
Despite the gains, the failure to win childcare options was a major failing of the women's movement in Nussbaum's eyes.

Bringing the Movement to Work
Nussbaum describes a turning point moment watching waitresses strike in Harvard Square.

Deciding to Unionize
Nussbaum remembers the initial reluctance at her 9to5 organization to start a union and why they eventually did so.

Raises Not Roses
Nussbaum describes the goals of 9to5 and women organizing in all sectors in the 70s - to win respect as workers.

Re-Organize
Nussbaum points to the unmet demands of the women's movement and the need to organize anew.

Making the Movie
Nussbaum discusses how Jane Fonda decided to do the "9 to 5" film and selling the studio on its enormous appeal.

Dolly’s Song
Nussbaum talks about the phenomenal song Dolly Parton created for the "9 to 5" film.

Too Much Self-Reliance
Nussbaum observes that younger women have lost the spirit of organizing and seeking help when they face discrimination.

Splitting Women Workers
Nussbaum considers how the advances of women at the top may have taken steam out of the movement to help all workers, whose conditions have only worsened since the 70s.

A More Inclusive Movement
Nussbaum suggests that a stronger focus on childcare, community services, and economic issues could have brought more homemakers into the women's movement.

The 1973 Turn
Nussbaum explains how the dramatic changes in income distribution since 1973 harm women and families.

Unions Today
Nussbaum lays out the current challenges facing unions and how she's worked outside of the system in Working America.