DARE city hall janitresses

DARE and the City Hall Janitresses

from Womankind (1972) An account of DARE's work to help end discrimination against the Chicago City Hall janitresses. from Womankind (1972)

(Editors Note: DARE (Direct Action for Rights in Employment) was the CWLU workgroup involved with work and discrimination. Their best known and most successful campaign was their work with the City Hall janitresses, who were battling gender and racial discrimination.)

One of the programs of the CWLU is DARE - Direct Action for Rights in Employment. The following is an account of the work they have done in the past year.

In January, 1972, the CWLU began to plan a program around the grievances of working women. We did this because we believe that women will not be liberated until we are able to earn enough money to support ourselves, and our families when necessary. We will not be able to do this until we win many changes: equal pay for equal work; (and the right to equal work!); maternity leave; retraining programs; child care for when we work, to name a few.

We found many women who wanted to work with us. We met many women through the Liberation School class “Women and the Economy.” Lots of women who had been fighting sex discrimination for years by themselves without the support of any organization backing them up came when they heard about us. The program quickly became made up of an assortment of women ranging in age from 20 to 60, working at many of the jobs that women usually work at: secretaries, janitresses, nurses aides, factory workers. Women from many jobs and backgrounds can be united against job discrimination, we found out.

In late 1971, the CWLU had been contacted by one of the janitresses at City Hall. Her grievances were: she received less pay for equal work, her seniority was ignored when she asked to be transferred from night shift to day shift, and her supervisor had refused to release her to a new and better position that she qualified for. Her grievances had been ignored by her union (Building Services #46), and by the Civil Service Commission. She wanted the CWLU to give her new ideas, lend moral support, and act as a pressure group on the city. We decided to focus first on equal pay for equal work because it was a very concrete demand. Our first step was to research the issue. We learned the civil service codes, the anti-discrimination laws, and got hold of a copy of the city budget. We then heard of a study on sex discrimination that Alderman Leon Despres, one of the few aldermen who really represents the people, was doing. We talked to him and agreed to be part of a coalition to release that study. The coalition of women’s groups included NOW. the YWCA, the League of Women Voters, and the CWLU.

On June 29 this coalition of women’s organizations held a press conference to release Alderman Despres’ sex discrimination findings. His report, showed that 80% of all city hall employees making over $14,000 per year were men and that 90% of all city hall employees making under $8, 000 per year were women. The city’s official response was “The ladies of Chicago are the finest in the country. There is no discrimination against our ladies. “

Our strategy was to have a demonstration at the end of the summer with a short play about women in the economy and speakers. We spent the summer leaf letting city hall and a few other city buildings about Despres’ findings and about the city’s response. Lots of women were outraged that the Mayor and his cohorts discriminated against women the way they did; we also met women who were machine hacks, wives and sisters of influential machine Democrats who were hostile towards anyone disagreeing with Hiz Honor.

We wanted the demonstration on August 26th, a day that for the past few years has had women’s liberation demonstrations all over the country. That was the week of the Lakefront Festival, though, and the city wasn’t about to give a bunch of angry women their Civic Center Plaza. The demonstration, finally held on September 1st, was a success. The demands were:

  • End job discrimination in city government, starting with equal pay for the janitresses.
  • Begin an affirmative action program (a program whose goal is equal pay and equal opportunity in all job classifications. It makes the employer responsible for seeking out qualified women.)
  • The Mayor publicly should say that he is for an ordinance banning discrimination against women.

We started the day off by marching over to the Mayor’s office. We didn’t get to see hizzoner. He had had a hard summer, with the Democratic Convention and all, and wasn’t up to meeting with more people who were angry at him. We spoke to Deputy Mayor Ken Sain. Mr. Sain was very nice to us, saying oh yes, well he would get us a meeting with the wonderful Mayor, and yes, tsk, tsk, the poor janitresses, and his secretaries would set up another meeting between us and him and he would work on it.

Later, at the rally, we did our skit and everyone loved it. NOW spoke, as did AFSCME (The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a good union), and CWLU. Lots of people, men and women, came.

The second time we met with Mr. Sain his attitude had changed quite a bit. He claimed the city already had an affirmative action program, which we knew was false. He did agree to investigate the job category of janitresses and janitors. In mid-November we went into our last negotiating session with Ken Sain. He told us that the Budget Dept. had reviewed the case of the janitresses and that “compensations had been made” in the 1973 budget. We were skeptical, but took his words to mean janitresses pay had been equalized.

On November 15 the budget was released and we found out what slippery Mr. Sain meant by compensation. The title of janitor had been changed to custodial worker, and janitress to custodial assistant, while the pay gap between the two increased even more. Now the janitresses would have to suffer under a job title which implied subservience to the janitors as well as continue to do equal work for less pay.

Learning what the compensations were, we went on to attack the 1973 budget. Once the Mayor releases the budget it is very hard to win changes. We decided to give it a try and went to the public hearings of both the Finance Committee and the City Council. On November 20, the day of the Finance Committee hearings, we started the day off with a very successful press conference. We then read testimony denouncing the sex discrimination in the 1973 budget. At the hearings we blasted the change in job classifications and the $1060 difference in pay between the men and the women.

After these hearings, many janitresses who were not in the group got in contact with us. They had heard about their new job titles and were furious. They wanted to get together, but were afraid for their jobs. We set up anonymous interviews with three city reporters and got some very good stories, one on the front page of the Daily News.

On December 15 we testified at a public city council meeting again demanding equal pay for the janitresses. When Jennifer R., acting as spokeswoman for DARE, finished her testimony, members of the DARE group sitting in the galleries held up a sign which read “Give the city budget a clean sweep”, which was promptly ripped down by the council policemen!


One thing we have learned is how much women’s passivity holds us back. We have been taught from childhood to be passive. Women don’t run around making demands for things we deserve. We either take what we get or have to try using our feminine ways to get what we need. It is very hard to get over this! The way Mr. Sain treated us and our typical women’s response (believing him, not demanding he prove what he was saying) taught us a lesson we’ll never forget!

We also learned how a very mixed group of women could unite around an issue that affects us all. Secretaries, factory workers, janitresses and nurses aides were all working together to fight for an end to job discrimination. We also learned the powerfulness of how the newspapers and TV have portrayed women’s liberation for the past few years. Many women were scared of us because they expected us to be the whole image of bra burning wierdos. Only our continued growth as a strong women’s liberation organization that fights for real changes in women’s lives will change that image.


The next thing we have planned is a Liberation School class, Self-Defense in the Workplace. It will be about day to day issues in the workplace, negotiations and government intervention. The class will be on Sunday afternoons, starting March 4th, for 6 weeks. Call the office later in the month, to find out where it will be held.

If you are interested in working with DARE, call the office, too. We are open to new people and our group has a lot to offer working women fighting job discrimination.