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Dial-an-Organizer: Using Storytelling and Emotion to Build Movements

By Kressent Pottenger

Imagine: you call a hotline to complain about how you were fired for being pregnant or harassed by your manager. On the other end, an operator gives you advice on organizing and labor law.

It sounds unlikely today, but in the 1970s, a group of women clerical workers, frustrated with their treatment, developed and achieved success with these non-traditional methods of organizing.

Migrating from the unpaid labor of the home to wage labor in the office, women workers needed a safe way to confide the humiliations and degradation they were experiencing in their offices. The working women’s group 9to5 therefore developed the “9to5 Job Survival Hotline,” which functioned much like hotlines for domestic abuse or suicide. This private hotline allowed women workers to call, anonymously, describe their grievances in what was at times embarrassing detail, and determine how to push back. 9to5 thereby created a safe space via phone for women workers to call and speak about what they endured on the job, and learn what course of action to take next.

9to5 transcribed the stories of women callers as they shared personal details about their livelihoods:

Marian is a sales clerk in a retail store. She will be having a baby in one month, when she spoke to her boss about making maternity leave arrangements, he said that 6 weeks of maternity leave was too much, and she should be ready to return within a week of delivery. At another store owned by the same family, one of the clerks had surgery and was out of work for 8 weeks without pay or repercussion.

Maisha is a sales trainer for an office machine company. She became pregnant, and planned to return to work when her doctor released her. At the company award dinner, she was given a plaque inscribed “A mother’s love is never ending.” It was announced that she would probably not be coming back. All of her colleagues were given business recognition awards. The company says they have no openings.

Sharon worked as the administrative assistant to the vice president of a small firm. The owner’s son constantly propositioned her, and she turned him down. He called her at home late at night many times; he would also call her into his office and scream at her because she wouldn’t go out with him. While she was on vacation, the company left a message on her answering machine saying she was fired.

Susan is a glass artist who works for a furniture company. Her boss doesn’t like the way she fitted a pattern and pushed her into a glass panel and broke it. He cursed her, using religious epithets.

These problems were so commonplace that it never occurred to many workers to fight back until it became too much to endure. 9to5 describes the “trembling voices” of hotline callers desperately seeking some relief from their situation.

Word of the hotline spread: one woman found the number in her desk drawer left by the previous secretary. Another woman worker described calling the EEOC to file a sex discrimination complaint. When the worker told the female operator about 9to5’s help, the operator asked for their number.

According to a 1988 pamphlet called Business As Usual: Stories From the 9to5 Hotline, 30% of calls were related to pregnancy, 24% were general complaints including health issues on the job, poor pay, and inadequate child care among others, 18% general harassment, 12% discrimination, 10% termination & layoffs, and 6% sexual harassment. 9to5 heard from women workers in all parts of the economy — from low-paid clerical work to bartending. The hotline created a private, confidential way to acquire support.

By allowing women workers to engage confessional modes of storytelling to talk about their conditions, 9to5 practiced what one of its founding members, Karen Nussbaum, called “enlightened organizing.”

The importance of storytelling and analyzing emotion are central, yet often overlooked, aspects of building movements and ensuring their longevity. In the book It Was Like a Fever, author Francesca Poletta describes how, unlike other movements that utilized canonicity to demonstrate or gain “moral authority” by emphasizing the actions of political leaders, 9to5 focused on the personal accounts of women workers. Their validity derived from authentic stories of the workplace rather than canonical figures that came before them.

The hotline served as emotional support for women, and provided a resource for achieving some justice in their workplaces. In her book Moving Politics, sociologist Deborah Gould helps us understand how central the emotion work is to sustaining a movement: “consider that in order to attract and to retain participants and to pursu[e] a movement’s agenda, activists continually need to mobilize affective states and emotions that mesh with the movement’s political objectives and tactics, and suppress those that do the opposite.”

In a volatile political climate with candidates that seek to hollow out more and more of the hard-won, yet minimal protections for women in the workplace, we need more thoughtful, intensive organizing reminiscent of 9to5. These workers understood that simply presenting facts to the general public is not enough. Feelings, and our attachment to or understanding of a narrative, are what create the possibilities for creating change.

Kressent Pottenger graduated from the MA in Labor Studies program at the Murphy Institute in May 2015.

Photo by Patrik Nygren via flickr (CC-BY-SA)