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New '9to5' Film Shows Cincinnati, Cleveland Roles In Working Women's Movement

University of Cincinnati clerical workers protest on the Clifton campus in the mid-1980s.
Courtesy Walter Reuther Library/Wayne State University
University of Cincinnati clerical workers protest on the Clifton campus in the mid-1980s.

Who knew that the movie9 to 5was inspired by Cleveland secretaries? Or that clerical workers at the University of Cincinnati and Cuyahoga Community College played a pivotal role in the "9to5" grassroots labor movement of the 1970s and '80s to get equal pay and benefits for women office workers?

Those were some of the surprises to me in 9to5: The Story Of A Movement,a 90-minute documentary by Emmy- and Oscar-winning filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar airing Monday Feb. 1 on PBS' Independent Lens(10 p.m., Channels 48, 54).

"I thought it was a really important story," says Reichert, a 1971 Antioch College graduate and Yellow Springs resident who has a long resume of documentaries about blue-collar workers (American Factory, The Last Truck, Union Maids, Seeing Red). But it wasn't easy.


Reichert and husband Steven Bognar, who both directed and produced the film, had to do their own research to track down the history, TV news footage, sexist TV sitcom and commercial clips, and find 30 participants to interview about the movement, including four from Cincinnati.

Karen Nussbaum leads marches for equal pay in the 1980s.
Credit Courtesy Walter Reuther Library/Wayne State University
Karen Nussbaum leads marches for equal pay in the 1980s.

First they tracked down 9to5 co-founders Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy. That led them to Boston, where Nussbaum and Cassedy organized the Harvard University Office Workers Group and Boston-area secretaries.

A survey of woman office workers revealed that secretaries and clerks didn't have job descriptions; written documentation about their wages, benefits or conditions; salary reviews; maternity leave; on-the-job training; or equal benefits to men in similar jobs.

They spent eight years making the film, but it was worth it. The filmmakers found wonderful old TV clips to illustrate attitudes and working conditions from Mary Tyler Moore, I Love Lucyand Phil Donahue's talk show.

In a Mary Tyler Mooreexcerpt from the 1970s, TV newsroom boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) explains to Mary why her predecessor made $50 more a week. "Because he was a man," Grant says.

When the 9to5 movement spread to Chicago, the filmmakers found CBS Evening Newsanchor Walter Cronkite reporting on secretaries' refusal to make coffee: "Some bosses regard their secretaries as office wives who should be as willing to make coffee as take a memo. In Chicago today, some of the offices wives said they wanted a divorce."

Chapters also sprang up in Seattle, Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New York. Two of the biggest hotbeds were Cleveland (with National City Bank employees above) and Cincinnati.  So when Jane Fonda researched her role for the 9 to 5comedy with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, she met with 40 Cleveland office workers.

"Much of the script came out of my visit to Cleveland in 1978," Fonda told a Cleveland newspaper. "I had the idea of the movie before, but it all come together in Cleveland."

Continuing complaints to 9to5 organizers after the 1980 hit film prompted them to become a union. In 1981, Working Women and the Service Employees International Union started a joint venture to organize 20 million U.S. women clerical workers through "Local District 925" offices.

An undated photo from a 1980s University of Cincinnati protest found at the Walter Reuther Library at Detroit's Wayne State University.
Credit Courtesy Walter Reuther Library/Wayne State University
An undated photo from a 1980s University of Cincinnati protest found at the Walter Reuther Library at Detroit's Wayne State University.

The first successful union vote came at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College.  Then the focus shifted to the University of Cincinnati. Donna Samuels, Carolyn Schwier and Inge Goldschmidt recall in the film the organizational efforts by Deborah Schneider, who later married Cincinnati Federal of Teachers president Tom Mooney. Today she's a SEIU deputy trustee living in Washington, D.C.

"I wasn't really interested in forming a union, but (UC) management started these mandatory meetings… where they kindly explained to you what unions were all about, that they were all about getting your dues money, and they would not come through for you. Well, that infuriated me!" Goldschmidt says.

UC unionization failed by 29 votes, 586 to 557. Two years later, UC clerical workers won representation after more denigration by UC administrators, including a leaflet calling union organizers "liars" and "lazy."

It took another 18 months for UC office workers to get their first contract. When talks stalled under new UC President Joseph Steger in the mid-1980s, workers walked off their jobs at 10 a.m. one day. The filmmakers found photos of the UC strike in Detroit, at Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther archives of Labor and Urban Affairs. They also found Cincinnati TV news footage from the UC protest, too.

9to5,like most Reichert-Bognar films, doesn't use a narrator. They let the interview, TV news film, old commercials and TV show clips tell the story, which makes it very intimate and powerful. Reichert's American Factory film about a Dayton-area GM plant is also without narration, and won an Academy Award and Primetime Emmy Award last year.

"I like to get out of the way," says Reichert. "There is an authenticity to directly relate what the audience is seeing and what they're hearing." 

Credit Richard Bermack photo / Independent Lens
Independent Lens

"It was exciting to find stuff. It makes history come alive," she says. They also used materials from the University of Cincinnati Archives and Rare Books Library; Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library; WKRC-TV and WLWT-TV; ABC News, CBS News and NBCUniversal; the National Archives; and newspapers, libraries and universities in many cities. (The above photo of 9to5 advocates passing out "Vote Yes" union flyers was provided by Independent Lens without any identification.) 

Reichert, a Wright State professor emeritus who has been battling cancer for 15 years, and Bognar used many of their Ohio connections for the film. Editor Jamie Meyers Schlenck and line producer Melissa Godoy live in Cincinnati. Paula Kinsel of Columbus did the graphics. The filmmakers and some of their staffers will appear in a "making of 9to5" special for WCET-TV and WPTD-TV tentatively to air March 9, Bognar says.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.
Credit Dorothy Kleinholt photo / Courtesy Steven Bognar
Courtesy Steven Bognar
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.

Although their Emmy-winning A Lion In The House(2006)about Cincinnati Children's Medical Center cancer patients took nine years to make, Reichert calls 9to5 the "hardest film we've ever worked together on. There was no book about 9to5, or many articles. We had to do original research," she says.

It was a topic close to her heart.

"I'm a '60s girl and a working class kid," says Reichert, who grew up in a New Jersey blue-collar family. "I was so impacted by the marches of the '60s for civil rights, the anti-war movement and the women's movement. I see how these movements impacted the community and the world.

"My father was a union man, a Republican. We had security. We owned a house. We had a new car every two years. We took vacations every year, and we traveled. I know unions are important."

9to5was supposed to premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival last March. Instead it premiered at the AFI Docs documentary film festival last June in Washington, D.C. It has won awards at St. Louis, Key West, Alexandria (VA) and Cordillera (Reno) film festivals.

9to5: The Story Of A Movementairs 10-11:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1, on PBS'Independent Lens(Channels 48 and 54; at 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, on Dayton's Channel 16; and 10:30 p.m. Friday on Channel 14. A "making of"9to5 airs March 9 on Cincinnati and Dayton PBS stations.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit .

John Kiesewetter joined the WVXU news team as a TV/Media blogger on July 1 2015, after nearly 30 years covering local and national broadcasting for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He’ll be posting news about Greater Cincinnati TV, radio and movies; updating your favorite former local TV/radio personalities or stars who grew up here; and breaking news about national TV, radio and media trends. You’ll also learn about Cincinnati’s rich broadcasting history.