A shift has been happening over the last couple of years. As a number of high profile sexual harassment and sexual assault cases in the entertainment industry have become headline news, there seems to be areal change in how sexual relations are regarded. The patriarchal structure of our society is being called to account.

There have been a number of waves in the movement for women’s equality which have sought to win political power with the vote, to win economic power with gaining entry into the workplace, and to win issues like pay equity, child care and entry into non-traditional jobs. However the latest wave is challenging the status quo on a much more personal level. It isn’t just a systemic change that is being sought but also in the way individual men conduct themselves and to re-examine the ways we have treated women in the workplace This is creating a really nasty backlash from some men but others feel areal confusion about what are the new ‘rules’.

Besides the’ Me too’ movement which helped bring the issue of harassment to the fore as more and more women stepped forward to testify to how widespread the problem is, an organization called Time’s Up was formed. While the cases of actors and executives grabbed people’s attention many of the women in Hollywood realized the problem went much farther and much deeper. This was brought home to them when the Alianza Nacional de Campensinas , a 700,000 member farmworkers union, sent a letter expressing their solidarity with the women standing up and speaking out.

“We do not work under bright stage lights or on a big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country. Even though we work in very different environments we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire and blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you there are very few positions open to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option …because too much is at risk
including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”

Time’s Up is not only looking to change the film industry through awareness campaigns and promoting the ‘4 Per Cent Challenge’ but is also setting up a legal defense fund to help those who are experiencing sexual harassment or are suffering retaliation from reporting cases.

The union movement in Canada has been organizing and educating their members around women’s rights for the past 60 years but particularly since the 1980’s. With the increased number of women in Canadian unions, especially public sector unions, there was a shift in the demands that we brought to the bargaining table such as child care provisions and protections against harassment. It has not always been an easy road as union members, especially in male dominated resource industries, can be as sexist as any other man raised in a patriarchal society. However, with the democratic structure of unions and with a history of
fighting for social justice, unions were more open to the changes needed.

With impetus from the local Women’s Committee, the Vancouver Local of my union, around 1978, included a segment on sexual harassment in our basic shop stewards training course. It created some heated debates and in fact I remember a couple of men walking out. However it soon became an accepted part of the course and provided tools for our stewards to deal with this very real problem on the work floor. It wasn’t until 1982 that sexual harassment was included in the Human Rights Act but we were able to use the prohibition against discrimination against women in our Collective Agreement.

As a shop steward it was fairly straightforward to deal with one of our members being harassed by a supervisor. We didn’t always win the protection and redress that was needed but it felt like just one more battle against a bad boss. Where it got complicated was when we had to deal with one member sexually harassing another member. It was complicated by two factors. One is that the employer ultimately has control of the workplace and therefore is legally responsible for any actions done by both their own representatives i.e. supervisors, and by the workers, our members. This meant that the woman harassed would have to complain to management in order to initiate some action to resolve the problem. Besides the fact that management reps were often ignorant of their obligations, more detrimentally it meant the woman often got abuse from the harasser’s co-workers and in a small workplace that could cause some real hardship.

The other factor is ‘the duty of fair representation’ which obliges unions to represent all members fairly, honestly, and in a manner that is not arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. So in member to member harassment the union is obligated to represent both members, if they wish representation. As you can imagine, this could cause real conflict of interest for the union reps and distress for the complainant.

Unions cannot simply tell a harasser to go pound sand. A case was arbitrated in Newfoundland ( NAPW vs Benmore 1993) where a member assaulted another member and the union told him they would not grieve his discipline. He filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board who ruled that the union acted arbitrarily and told the union to pay for a lawyer to represent the guy. Our Union took the approach that we were not representing the harasser but were defending the collective agreement by ensuring the proper procedure was followed and that the punishment handed out fit the crime.

In general the union movement has been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights. If you look at the latest (2019) World Bank report “Women, Business and the Law ‘ there are only a handful of countries that get full marks for gender equality in the world and not coincidentally these are countries that also have a high rate of unionization.

So whether you are an actor in Hollywood or a farmworker in the Fraser Valley, you should expect and if necessary demand that your union continue this struggle.

 

Brian Charlton

Columnist, Tide Change