New York — Office work is important work, so important that it employs 20 million people and is the largest and fastest-growing job category in the country,'' says Karen Nussbaum.
Ten years ago she and Ellen Cassedy founded an organization called 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women. Its goal was to right what it saw as the wrongs in the treatment of office workers.
Today, the group has grown to include 12,000 members and 18 chapters around the country. Members are, for the most part, clerks, secretaries, typists, administrative assistants, tellers, editors, and word processor operators.
The two founders joined forces in 1973, when they met as young clerk-typists at Harvard University. There they discovered that lack of respect for clerical workers was as ''commonplace as paper clips.''
Then one weekend they attended a YWCA workshop for office workers and heard grievances voiced by others, including the problems of low pay, limited advancement opportunities, and little say over working conditions. So they knew they had plenty of company and that something might be gained by combining forces. Eight other young women in the Boston area joined them in founding the 9 to 5 group.
Better pay and more opportunities to move up the ladder frequently lead 9 to 5's continuing list of concerns, as well as winning more respect and improving working conditions.
''We've certainly won more respect,'' said Miss Nussbaum in a recent interview, reflecting over the past 10 years. ''We are not treated like office equipment anymore. But as for better salaries, we still have a long way to go. It is time now that we see the changed status of office workers reflected in the paycheck.''
She says the average salary for a full-time woman office worker today is just over $12,000, compared with just over $17,000 for male office workers. Women are estimated to make up 80 percent of the total office work force.
''There is still discrimination and disparity,'' she says, ''but now people are aware of it, both workers and bosses, so we are in a far better position to get fairer treatment.''
Candace Louis, director of public relations for Professional Secretaries International, concurs. ''We find that a top-flight secretary is now becoming much more a member of the management team, and likely to be recognized and compensated accordingly. In a study we did last year, we found that our members were averaging from $17,000 to $18,000 a year in salary, and that some executive secretaries were commanding from $30,000 to $40,000 a year.''
The co-founders of 9 to 5 support the idea of unionization as the ideal in order to gain permanent improvements. Two years ago the organization affiliated itself with the Service Employees International Union. The union designed expressly for office workers is designated as ''District 9 to 5.''
According to Denise Mitchell, the union's public information officer, District 9 to 5 Union has won 10 certification elections over the last 2 1/2 years and gained 6,000 members, including office workers at the University of Washington in Seattle and of the city of East Cleveland in Ohio. A number of organizing drives are now in progress, including law and insurance firms, colleges and universities, and both public and corporate offices.
Not everyone agrees with 9 to 5, however, that unionization is the best way for office workers to make their voices heard.
Martin C. Payson, a partner in Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman, a New York firm of labor lawyers who represent management, says that while he appreciates the importance of the issues 9 to 5 raises, he disagrees with the group's approach.
''We part company as to the means for achieving those worthy objectives,'' he continues. ''To [Karen Nussbaum], unionization of employees is the answer, and she follows the traditional labor union confrontational route. In our experience , the unionization of employees has often brought greater problems than the ones identified by the unions.''
Mr. Payson said his firm's means are through regular counseling of employers, helping them recognize the legitimate needs of employees and then attempting, within the economic constraints of the enterprise, to satisfy those needs and to communicate fully those efforts to employees. ''We urge companies to talk to their employees, listen to them, and to be responsive if they raise legitimate issues.''
Others in industry concur. After a 20-month effort, for example, the 9 to 5 union is now in the bargaining stage at the office of Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, in Syracuse, N.Y. But a spokeswoman for Equitable says: ''We are bargaining, but we pursued our legal right to appeal the results of the election. We prefer to deal with workers directly and we don't feel they need a union to fight for them.''
Mr. Payson concedes that while Miss Nussbaum was undoubtedly a founder of the movement to organize office workers, she now has much competition from older, dwindling unions that are seeking to do the same. Still others argue that the potential for organizing office workers, at least at the moment, is not all that great.
''I wouldn't call the attempt to organize office workers and give them bargaining power a movement,'' says Prof. David Lewin, a specialist in industrial and labor relations and professor of business at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York.
''I would call it a possibility right now, and not even a trend. Data gathered abroad about office workers in Europe and even Asia indicate they are far more heavily organized than we in the US. As we draw closer to other countries through international business and trade, we could well be pushed to adopt many of their practices, including unionization.''
Necessary conditions for increasing the unionization potential here would be sustained economic recovery through 1984, the professor says. This would have to be followed by a continued increase in the rise of services that involve considerable office help, and the continuing decline of manufacturing.
Professor Lewin says unionization of office workers could come as a sort of new eruption in the labor movement, which, if it gets even a 10 percent foothold in the office-worker work force, could quickly expand.
Fewer than 10 percent of all office workers are now unionized, says Miss Nussbaum, but those who are earn 30 percent more than nonunion clericals.
Candace Louis, speaking of the 40,000 members, worldwide, of Professional Secretaries International, says: ''Only about 2 percent of our members belong to unions, so we are not antiunion per se. We just feel that professional secretaries can negotiate on their own and do not need the assistance of a union. We address a totally different audience from Karen Nussbaum's.''
A big move toward unionization of office workers will probably come during the next 10 or 15 years, Miss Nussbaum expects. Newsweek recently cited her as a true innovator and one of a new generation of labor leaders who can open new areas of organization. ''Unlike many old-fashioned male organizers,'' the magazine pointed out, ''Nussbaum has deftly tapped and harnessed many of the concerns spawned by the women's movement.''
Meanwhile, the 9 to 5 leaders urge women workers to organize informally on the job, to join with others in their departments or places of work, in order to gain rights through group persuasion or pressure. And Miss Nussbaum, who lives in Cleveland with her husband and son, is a frequent speaker at women's conferences and seminars, as well as at computer industry and management groups. She talks about such problems as pay equity and other concerns of working women.
Co-founder Ellen Cassedy works and lives with her family in Philadelphia. There she develops and runs training sessions on career planning and on how to organize women workers. She also edits the 9 to 5 newsletter and directs the organization's research and educational programs.
The two women have just summed up much of what they have learned over the past decade in a new paperback book called ''9 to 5, The Working Woman's Guide to Office Survival'' (Penguin Books, New York, $5.95).
Miss Nussbaum says the women they are addressing still need lots of help in conquering clusters of old fears, such as the boss saying no to a request, being humiliated for suggesting a change, not knowing if you have all the information you need, and being unaware of techniques to get other people to support you.
The greatest threat to continuing improvement, the authors contend, is what they term ''sit-it-out patience,'' which recognizes the problems but doesn't want to grapple with them, and just hopes they will go away. Women, they insist, must learn how to work effectively for the changes they want to bring about in their work life.