This article originally appeared in January 10th, 2018 in the unionist.org
The revelations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein and many other powerful men—including some union leaders—have jarred the public consciousness, and inspired the #MeToo movement. It has also made many people wonder how much sexual harassment and assault is happening in their communities. Workers in every kind of industry are talking about how to protect themselves and one another.
In a recent statement, the AFL-CIO’s officers “pledge to double down on our efforts to ensure we stamp out the pervasive problems of harassment and discrimination of any form in our workplaces and in our society.” This moment is a time for everyone to promote a culture of respect and care, not just inside their union, but for all people.
Sexual harassment and assault, wherever it occurs, is always much more about power than it is about sex. Here are some guidelines for making a safer workplace, along with tips for what to do if you’re made aware of harassment—or if you’ve stepped over the line. Union activist Ana Polanco notes, “If we’re serious about fighting for worker power, we have to be serious about sexual harassment and other abuses of power.”
Solidarity: Not Just a Word
Labor people are known to say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” But those aren’t just nice words. And here are five actions you can take to actively support each other.
Recognize: Individuals are harassed if they perceive that they are being harassed. What one person may brush off as a joke or innocent comment may deeply disturb someone else. If a member says she has been sexually harassed, believe her. If someone reports that a supervisor, coworker or client has behaved inappropriately, acknowledge that an offense has occurred. Check out Hands Off Pants On, produced by UNITE HERE! Local 1, unionists in Chicago’s hospitality industry who have experienced horrifying harassment and assault. Jane Slaughter’s “No Casting Couch for Low-Wage Women, But Lots of Sexual Harassment” also details more of this.
Respond: It’s important that you express support for members who report sexual harassment. The union should be their ally. Stewards need to listen and offer assistance, such as help with problem solving, filling a grievance, or finding community resources. Assure the member they are not at fault. Listen carefully to what they want to do and affirm that they are in control of their next steps. Do the necessary research and, if needed, make sure they know what their options for recourse are.
■ Be aware that each person’s decision to take action is both personal and strategic. Some things to consider include the person’s conflict style; the cost/benefit analysis of speaking up versus keeping silent; the organization’s past handling of similar problems; and whether the available resources and for action are perceived to be confidential and effective.
■ Regardless of where they are in this process, encourage members to keep a log of dates, times, places, and a summary of events.
Refer: Members who have been harassed or assaulted are likely to want, or need, more help than you are qualified to offer. Sexual harassment is against the law, so they may need to consult a lawyer. Individuals may benefit from community resources, to you (or an Employee or Member Assistance Program) should direct them to these.
Reform: As a union steward, you have a duty to represent all the workers in your bargaining unit. This gives you the opportunity to reform the way the workforce perceives behaviors that belittle, disrespect, or otherwise harm your members. By your words and actions you influence the conduct of others—including management! Stewards will be held to a higher standard, and your actions should reflects the belief that all workers deserve to be treated with dignity. If you witness harassment, intervene in a way that both sends a message to the harasser that their conduct is inappropriate, and also to the victim that they are being supported. Talk with union leaders and members to raise awareness. Review the employer’s policy and the language of your contract to see if there are provisions that prohibit sexual harassment. If there are, enforce them, and if there aren’t, suggest that language be included in the next round of negotiations. (See “The Top 10 Things Unions Can Do Right Now to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.”)
Reject: At some point or another in over lives, all of us have offended someone with words or deeds. If you are confronted about something you’ve said, or failed to say, dig deep and really listen. It takes a lot to set aside defensiveness, but the high standards you set for yourself require that you be able to admit—to yourself and to others—when you’ve erred. Regardless of your intentions, if someone feels offended, an apology is in order, along with a commitment to change. Men who want to be allies can learn from community based male-activists. For information is available at Futures Without Violence, and especially the post “From #MeToo to #HowIWillChange, Men Can Prevent Abuse.”
Just as with speaking in public, the more you practice interventions, the more comfortable you will become. Ask another steward to role play these scenarios with you; alternate playing the roles of the person being harassed, being a bystander, and of being the harasser. Request that a steward training address the issue, and suggest to an officer that the union pass a resolution at the next convention.
The labor movement has often taken the lead in supporting cultural reforms that reduce oppression and exploitation. To those in your workplace, you are the union and the labor movement. Every day you influence people’s attitudes about unions. Be the kind of steward that makes people say, “My union stands with me.”
KC Wagner is the co-chair of the Equity at Work initiative at Cornell ILR’s Worker Institute. She has been an expert witness in court cases, developed organizational prevention and training initiatives with unions, and provided educational coaching to individuals.