Born in Chicago on April 25, 1950, Karen Nussbaum attended the University of Chicago for three semesters in 1968-69. While there, she became “deeply involved” in a movement of campus radicals who occupied the school’s Administration Building for several weeks. She also joined the anti-Vietnam War movement; participated in the demonstrations against the 1968 Democratic Party convention; and, angered by “the impunity” with which the federal government “attacked Black Panthers,” joined an organization called the Black Panther Support Committee.
In 1970 Nussbaum participated in the second Venceremos Brigade, an initiative of Fidel Castro‘s intelligence agency that covertly transported hundreds of young Americans to Cuba to help harvest sugar cane and interact with Havana’s Communist revolutionary leadership. In the company of “a lot of Weathermen who were in the Brigade,” Nussbaum found it “thrilling” to visit Cuba, which she later described as “a society that was combating racism, that had provided free health and educational care to every person in society, that had reduced income inequality more dramatically than any place else on earth.”
Upon her return from Cuba to the U.S., Nussbaum relocated to Boston, where she took a job as a clerical worker at Harvard University and remained active in the antiwar movement. She also joined an organization called Female Revolutionary Education, which taught women a combination of radical political theory and practical skills like auto mechanics and emergency medicine.
In 1973 Nussbaum founded 9to5 (later, 9to5, National Association of Working Women), which began as a group for female clerical workers in Boston but eventually grew into one of the largest national feminist organizations in America.
Also in 1973, Nussbaum joined the staff of the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ), a Boston organization that helped high-school students form new anti-war groups. Soon thereafter, PCPJ allied itself with the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC), which, under the leadership of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, worked tirelessly to cut American aid to the governments in Saigon and Phnom Penh, thereby helping the North Vietnamese and Cambodian Communists overthrow those governments. Nussbaum became an IPC steering-committee member and was part of its 1973 delegation to North Vietnam.
In 1975 Nussbaum earned a B.A. from Goddard College in Vermont. That same year, she became president of the Service Employees International Union‘s Local 925 in Boston, a post she would hold for the next 18 years.
Also in 1975, Nussbaum was contacted by Jane Fonda, who, by Nussbaum’s telling, “said she wanted to make a contribution to our [9to5] work in the best way she knew how, and that was to make a major motion picture.” In response, Nussbaum invited Fonda to meet with her and some 40 female office workers at 9to5’s Cleveland location. There, the women discussed “the problems that they faced on the job” and their fantasies of “getting even with the [male] boss.” Thus was the foundation laid for what would eventually become the motion picture 9 to 5, which in 1980 was a #1 box-office draw. According to Nussbaum, the film, which starred Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin, raised “public consciousness” about “discrimination in the workplace.”
In June 1992, Nussbaum spoke at “Empowerment ’92: A Call to Action Conference,” where left-wing community activists, trade unionists, political leaders, peace activists, and environmentalists gathered to discuss ways of pushing America’s national priorities further to the left. Other speakers at this event included Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown, NYC mayor David Dinkins, Al Gore, Richard Trumka, and Maxine Waters.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed Nussbaum as director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Labor Department. At that point, Nussbaum stepped down from her posts as president of SEIU District 925 and executive director of 9to5.
In May 1998 in Chicago, Nussbaum spoke at a “Globalization From Below” conference organized by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Other speakers included Luis Gutierrez, Dolores Huerta, Jesse Jackson, and representatives of such unions as the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and the United Auto Workers. Four years later, Nussbaum contributed an article to the DSA publication Democratic Left, titled “Reflections on Nickel and Dimed [the Barbara Ehrenreich book]: Earning Respect for Women Workers.”
In 2003 Nussbaum founded the AFL-CIO affiliate Working America, and remains is executive director.
Claiming (inaccurately) that female employees in the U.S. are paid significantly less than men who do equivalent work, Nussbaum says: “If we continue the way we are going, market forces will not solve the pay gap until 2050.” What is needed to solve this problem, she believes, is an expansion of anti-discrimination laws.
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