In some local unions, #MeToo has galvanized members

A hashtag that began trending on social media just over a year ago is now the rallying cry of a movement seeking to change cultural attitudes toward sexual harassment, especially in the workplace.

But ask a trade unionist, and she’ll likely tell you workplace cultures don’t change on their own.

Last month the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul brought together a panel of local women fighting for change through the collective bargaining process. They exchanged ideas and strategies, reported their victories and setbacks, and reflected on the impact the #MeToo movement has had – and could still have – on both union and non-union workplaces.

It was the first in a series of monthly conversations planned by the ESFL and the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service exploring how labor and social movements intersect.

Up next: “The Labor Movement and Environmentalism.” The discussion is set to begin at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St.

Beyond celebrity scandal

The #MeToo hashtag – and the movement it inspired – created a community of support that emboldened women to come forward with their experiences of harassment. Their allegations helped reveal the misconduct of several powerful, prominent men, making headlines worldwide.

But these cases represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. Far less visible are the multitudes of women working in the shadows, harassed by bosses, clients or co-workers who aren’t rich or famous.

The federal agency that investigates workplace sexual harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says it is difficult to pinpoint how pervasive the problem is, as the overwhelming majority of those who experience harassment do not file a legal complaint. An EEOC task force two years ago estimated anywhere between 25 and 85 percent of working women experience sexual harassment – which includes unwanted touching or comments, requests for sexual favors and sexual assault – on the job.

In August, the National Women’s Law Center released a report analyzing the sexual harassment charges that do get reported. Between 2012 and 2016, researchers found, the most charges came from three industries ­– hospitality, retail and health care – that “employ women in lower paying jobs.”

“A precarious economic situation, including lack of a financial cushion, may make such women more vulnerable to coercion and harassment,” researchers wrote, adding that the same factors make women in low-paying jobs less likely to report harassment.

Shifting the power dynamics

Having a union on the job doesn’t protect workers – in low-wage jobs or any line of work – from sexual harassment. But harassment is fundamentally an abuse of power, and having a union increases workers’ collective power.

Two panelists at the Freedom Library last month discussed how their unions are using the power of solidarity to get justice for women who experience harassment, and to bargain contracts that protect against harassment in the first place.

In negotiations with 20 Twin Cities hotels, members of UNITE HERE Local 17 are demanding all housekeepers be equipped with panic buttons capable of calling for help at a moment’s notice. Local 17 President Christa Mello said union leaders decided to launch the “Hands Off Pants On” campaign after talking to members about their experiences in guest rooms.

“Some of the severe cases of harassment and assault made it really apparent something needed to be done,” Mello said. “Other workers didn’t even know it was a problem … to have something like that happen. And management didn’t want to address it because these (guests) are the people giving them money.”

UNITE HERE locals in other U.S. cities, starting with Chicago, have successfully bargained for panic buttons. Mello said Local 17 members plan to lobby state lawmakers in support of a bill requiring all hotels to equip housekeepers with panic buttons.

Standing with survivors

Members of Local 2822 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees took up #MeToo organizing under much different circumstances, local president Ali Fuhrman said.

The clerical workers’ union last year mobilized support for a member sexually assaulted by her manager at the correctional facility where they work. The survivor, Fuhrman said, reported the incident to management immediately, but it wasn’t until her bosses attempted to discipline her – not her attacker – that she got AFSCME involved. (Management said she was in violation of a policy prohibiting corrections workers from being at the facility on their days off.)

“For me, it was a real quick introduction to supervisor abuse, to the … lengths management will go to protect their own,” said Fuhrman, who won election as president of Local 2822 just two months before the assault.

The county finally put the supervisor on administrative leave after a call from union leadership. When Fuhrman asked for a meeting with a director in the county’s HR department, she brought along 20 fellow members who wanted to show their support for the survivor.

The supervisor was fired, but Local 2822 members didn’t stop mobilizing around the issue. They have since formed a committee on workplace harassment, and taken on the work of confronting harassment claims workers levy against fellow union members – a topic that can be tricky for organizations committed to due process.

“We’re hoping to create a culture in our local where people are given a chance to learn and change,” Fuhrman said. “But if they blow it, then they blow it.”

‘All you have to be is a co-worker’

Unions like Local 17 and 2822 offer solidarity, grievance structures and access to representation that strengthen workers’ ability to stop harassment before it happens and seek justice when it does. But differences exist even among unionized workplaces when it comes to cultural attitudes toward sexual harassment.

Several workers at the Freedom Library discussion – panelists and audience members – said it remains difficult to speak up about incidents on a construction job site, in particular.

Joanne Hager, a member of Laborers Local 563, said most tradespeople are nomadic, moving from job site to job site as their skills are needed. Working in an industry that cycles through workers quickly, Hager knows the risks that come with speaking up or pushing back against harassment.

“Every day I come home and my husband asks, ‘So, are you going to be invited back?’” she said.

Construction, of course, is a male-dominated industry. (“I don’t just hear locker-room talk,” Hager said. “I work in the locker room.”) But unions, employers and public policymakers are working on multiple fronts to recruit more women into careers in the trades – and to make the construction job site less threatening when women get there.

Kathrine Engel, a labor-law attorney who sat on the Freedom Library panel, began leading harassment training sessions for apprentices in Local 292 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers more than 20 years ago. The trainings make apprentices aware of what harassment looks like – and how one person’s toxic behavior can cause distractions and distrust on the job site, making all workers less safe.

“All you have to be is a coworker,” Engel tells apprentices. “One of the most powerful things you can do if you see somebody being harassed is to say, ‘I saw that, and that’s not OK.’”

Changing workplace culture doesn’t happen overnight, but Engel has seen changes over the last two decades that give her hope.

The first year she led a training, the room was filled exclusively with white men, most of whom were openly hostile to her presence. “I joked about wearing a flack jacket,” she said.

“Now it has evolved to where the apprentices are much more diverse racially and gender wise,” Engel added. “And increasingly, I see just one or two or three people in a class of 20 who are having a hard time with the concept of not harassing.

“But certainly, there’s still a long way to go.”

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