For most Washington secretaries, last week meant flowers, candy and perhaps lunch with the boss.
But a weightier observance -- a discussion of the pros and cons of secretarial unions -- is what brought together about 100 at the Washington School for Secretaries.
"Organizing is absolutely essential to change the serious problems working women face today," declared Joan Goodin, executive director of the National Commission on Working Women, and moderator of Friday's discussion.
The four major "areas of concern" for working women, according to an NCWW nationwide survey of 150,000 women in "female-intensive jobs," she said, are low wages and benefits, lack of internal support systems, child-care problems and inadequate education and training.
"Women feel a sense of isolation and powerlessness," saiud Goodin. "I believe there's not much hope for change without organizing."
As moderator, Goodwin said she wanted to "remain neutral about how organizing should be done. But whether through a professional association or a union, women have got to get together and start talking."
Representing the "pro-union" side was Jackie Ruff, national director of District 925 (as in "9 to 5"), a new nationwide union aimed at organizing clerical workers. The first union of its kind -- primarily for and run by women -- was created in March by the Service Employees International Union and Working Women, the association which inspired the movie "9 to 5."
In the opposite corner was Sylvia Cash, international director of the southeast district of Professional Secretaries International (formerly the National Secretaries Association), a non-profit association that endorses legislative activities of benefit to secretaries. A certified professional secretary -- the association's highest rating -- Cash sits on PSI's international board of directors.
Here are excerpts of their remarks about the controversial question facing 20 million American office workers (80 percent of whom are women):
Jackie Ruff: "Lets book a minute at some of our history. In the office of 1850, the secretary was a man, seen as filling a specialized and respected position and earning twice as much as a factory worker.
"Today, nearly all of those office workers are women, and the average annual salary is still less that $10,000. The average annual salary for a manufacturing worker is $15,000. Here in Washington, the average annual salary for a secretary is $13,600 and for a manufacturing worker, it's $16,600. s
"This is because, until recently, we haven't organized and insisted on the recognition that we deserve.
"What does it mean to unionize? At the most basic level it means that your employer is required by law to involve you in setting the personnel policies that cover you -- including pay. By speaking up as a unified group you are in the best position to achieve improvements in those policies. One person can be ignored, a petition can be thrown away, but an employer is legally required to negotiate with a union on wages, hours and working conditions.
"People often ask whether a union runs counter to professionalism. I would suggest it's just the opposite. To 'get it in writing' in a union contract is to use the safeguards of the professional world.
"Unionized office workers earned 30 percent more than those without unions. Better job-training programs and increased advancement opportunities come through clear job postings and career ladders. Each union contract is uniquely tailored to that work-place -- for example, in one contract we negotiated for a day off on National Secretaries Day.
"Improving working conditions through a union may help keep you healthy. A 1975 study by NIOSH of 130 occupations found that secretaries had the second highest incidence of stress-related diseases. Our union negotiates for job descriptions that are clear, priorities that are understood by everyone, realistic workloads and grievance procedures."
Sylvia Cash: "In March of this year (PSI) sponsored a Secretary Speakout '81 in San Francisco. It was the unanimous concensus of professional secretaries . . . their problems can be solved by constructive cooperation with management rather than unionization.
"I believe there are many reasons why these participants felt so strongly about the issue of unionzation. We recognize the great need for clerical office workers . . . and champion their efforts. But we do not believe the professional secretary is in this category.
"The professional is usually not a union member, basically because unions restrict your freedom. Most professionals have resisted unionization because they lose their identity.
"Clericals and some secretaries who are members of unions work in a very narrow structure. Positions are classified according to duties, and you are not permitted to operate outside of your classification. You are not permitted to help your neighbor who may be in a classification higher than your own because a grievance could be filed against you.
"Under a union contract, promotions are based on seniority -- not on performance or merit. In a union atmosphere you would not have the flexibility to grow with the job, to take the inititative and experiment with new ideas.
"Finally I believe that many unions have created an adversary relationship between management and the employes. Even though (a labor) dispute may eventually be settled amicably, the hostility continues to exist. For professional secretaries to be required to work under conditions relationship that is necessary between the executive and the professional secretary."