When Dorine Levasseur was just a few months into her role as president of Local 925, a newly-formed union that represented office workers in Boston, she knew she had a tough job ahead of her. In the early 1980s, she and fellow organizers were starting to see a rise in anti-union sentiment. She knew that encouraging those women to organize against their bosses was risky. But, in her eyes, it was necessary.
“I would have these nightmares, where I literally wake up crying and screaming, because what I was realizing I was doing is asking people to put their jobs on the line,” Levasseur said. “People had nothing without a union, nothing.”
Local 925 officially formed under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1975, spurred by the growing women’s movement. At the same time Levasseur was becoming a budding labor activist, Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum launched 9to5 in Boston, an advocacy organization that aimed to improve working conditions for women. Levasseur joined forces with the movement and became part of the original staff of Local 925, setting up an office out of the Boston YWCA.
9to5 eventually became a nationwide movement and inspired Dolly Parton’s famous song, which hit the top of the charts and led to a movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Parton. That story — 9to5’s trajectory from a group of secretaries in Boston to pop culture phenomenon — is chronicled in Independent Lens’ 9to5: The Story of a Movementdirected by Oscar winners Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar.
Lesser-known are the local origins of 9to5 and the union movement, which all began in Boston.
Levasseur’s desire to help working women started early in life, growing up in a French Canadian working-class family in Lowell.
“I came from a family that was a hardworking family,” Levasseur said. “My mother, she always talked a lot about how she was treated at work and that had an impact on me because I didn't want to see my mother hurt. She had a great sense of dignity about the work that she did, whatever it was, and a great sense of commitment.”
Thanks to financial aid and help from relatives, Levasseur became the first in her family to attend college, and arrived at Boston University just as the second wave of the women’s movement and anti-Vietnam protests were taking off, leading her to get involved in activism. “[Activism] pulled me in because it was about fights for justice and fights for what was right and fights for change,” she said.
After college, Levasseur started working at Boston State College (later UMass Boston) as a secretary in the Elementary Education department, which she says became a “life-changing experience.” There, she was mentored by professor Ann Gavin.
“She [Gavin] created an earthquake in my life,” Levasseur said. “She believed in me, she believed I could do anything I wanted to do.”
Gavin encouraged Levasseur to get involved with activism on campus, just as the state employee public bargaining law was about to be enacted in 1974. She became a co-chair of the committee, and the experience led her to the Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston, where she became the second woman president of the board. She took classes on grassroots activism and organized labor.
Levasseur’s work caught the attention of Karen Nussbaum, who was forming 9to5 to help office workers in Boston improve pay and fight sexual harassment. There wasn’t yet a union, and 9to5 was trying to get a charter for one so that female office workers could access collective bargaining rights. One day, Nussbaum invited Levasseur to a picnic, where Nussbaum told her about the movement and invited her to join. It was an “a-ha” moment for Levasseur, when she realized she could actually do something to fight for social change.
“People often quote Martin Luther King [Jr.], about the trajectory of the universe bending towards the arc of justice,” she said. “No — it doesn't bend the arc of justice. We have to make it bend. That's really how I saw things; we had to make things happen. It wasn't just going to happen. No one was going to hand us anything.”
As president of Local 925, Levasseur started organizing in publishing companies and universities, helping women come together and become advocates for themselves. They had to start with the basics.
“What we heard from people was what we experienced, or we had experienced on the job — the lack of opportunity to get ahead, being treated like we were sort of less than, like we were only capable of doing certain kinds of jobs, knowing that we were being paid lowest on the salary schedule, and we had to stay quiet about it,” Levasseur said.
Securing paid family leave was a big part of their activism, as well as addressing the “lack of understanding” for how company policies impact working mothers and women when they became pregnant. And, sexual harassment. “So much of this was [addressing] the way women were seen as 'there' for men's reasons.”
Some of the union's early victories came from organizing at the publisher Allyn & Bacon, Brandeis University, and New Hampshire Legal Assistance.
“The goal was really to get people to look at it from the standpoint of dignity and strength and numbers and building slowly and building cautiously,” Levasseur said. “We built very carefully and cautiously person-by-person so that people did not feel alone.”
One of Levasseur’s fondest memories in the early movement came in 1982, when Gloria Steinam, the national feminist icon, joined a picket line with striking answering service operators in Brookline.
“The effect of it, of having someone who was well-known and who captured some media attention and thereby brought media attention to their struggle was as exciting as it could be,” Levasseur said. “People were so pumped. It was a wonderful day.”
At the same time 9to5 was making inroads nationwide, a sizable anti-union industry was growing. Levasseur and other organizers often found themselves going up against companies that had hired outside companies to break up unionizing efforts.
“It was infuriating because they were undermining people's belief in themselves, and the belief that they could make a change, that they could have some control over their own destiny,” Levasseur said about the union busters. “That was awful soul-gutting.”
The union effort kept growing, and Levasseur started working with school secretaries, which provided an opportunity to address the gender pay gap and raise their pay. “One of the things we began pushing for was pay equity — not just equal pay for equal work, but equal pay for equivalent work,” Levasseur said.
For example, they found that school secretaries made significantly less than school custodians. “So much of it had to do with, ‘these are men’s jobs, and men are breadwinners,” Levasseur said. “And, ‘it’s physical work and it just requires a lot more effort’ without any value being placed on the intellectual effort.”
She noticed that some labor leaders at the time — many of whom were men — acted like “white knights coming in and saving the day.” Levasseur’s organizing philosophy was different.
“When we founded Local 925, we wanted to be an organization of member leaders,” she said. “They needed to find their own voice and we needed to help them find it and develop that voice. And to give them skills to speak on their own behalf.”
Levasseur worked for Local 925 for 15 years, and then for the Massachusetts Teacher's Union for 26 years. As she reflects on her long career as a labor organizer, she says she has realized the value in empowering workers themselves.
“The most exciting times for me always were the times when people realized they had done this themselves,” Levasseur said. “That they had this strong sense of their own power and their own abilities, and their own worth and dignity to either organize or get their first contract, and not look at me, but look at each other and realize that they had done this together.”
Stream 9to5: The Story of a Movement on WORLDchannel.org.
Watch the 'Meet the Makers' discussion with Julia Reichert, Ellen Cassedy, Janet Selcer, Dorine Levasseur and Darlene Lombos, moderated by Tina Martin.