“The exposé of Harvey Weistein and the outpouring of stories that followed on Twitter and beyond — now known as the #MeToo movement, inspired by activist Tarana Burke’s coining of the phrase in 2006 — forced a conversation about the intersection of gender and power. When spoken in the booming collective, women’s voices became too loud to dismiss. People started talking about their painful experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and everyday, casual sexism. Two years on, and we’re still listening. The #MeToo movement has affected public discourse and had tangible repercussions in workplaces in every arena.”
Elena Nicolaou Oct 7, 2019
The Me Too movement has done tremendous work in a short time but, like a lot of movements, it has stood on the shoulders of those who came before. In most of the news stories and articles written about harassment in the workplace there is little acknowledgement of the hard practical work union women and their allies have done in their unions over the past 50 years. By ignoring that work we are also missing out on possible solutions to the problem.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has always been a problem and women have always resisted but it was only in the 1970’s that unions began to take collective action to resolve the problem. As with many other social and economic issues, the labour movement, using the principles of solidarity, an injury to one is an injury to all, has been a leader in this area. It’s important to note that this work didn’t begin because the leadership woke up one morning and suddenly grasped the idea that this element of misogyny need to be dealt with. It was the women, who since the 1960’s started entering the paid workforce in much larger numbers, who demanded that harassers be dealt with and that union members be educated as to the seriousness of the problem.
It didn’t happen all at once. While I was the Education Director in the Vancouver Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers we first incorporated a section on sexual harassment in our shop steward training in the late ‘70s. We had a very strong Local Women’s Committee that had proposed the idea and came up with the course content. There was resistance from some of the male stewards but it soon became accepted as a standard part of the course.
It was definitely needed. As a steward I had to deal with too many cases of harassment in the Vancouver Post office. One supervisor had made advances toward a young woman, who liked wearing white dresses. She told him she wasn’t interested. He subsequently assigned her to the dirtiest jobs and she was verbally abused by him. We managed to get him barred from supervising her but it was a struggle because at that time we didn’t have very strong language in the Collective Agreement.
As bad as it was dealing with this case it was less stressful for the union because the offender was a management official. It was much more difficult when we had to deal with member to member harassment. Part of the problem is that under the law all union members are to be represented fairly, even those who harass other members. So we represent both the perpetrator and their victim. Although the guilt of a member may be obvious the union reps must ensure that due process is followed and that the punishment fits the crime. This often leads some members, and the public, who are ignorant of the duty of fair representation, to believe the union is siding with the harasser.
I am sure that instances could be cited where some locals or individual union reps are guilty of sexism but overall the work unions have undertaken around sexual harassment has led to real changes in the workplace. Unions are pioneers in both winning and enforcing contract language around sexual harassment. Having clearly written concrete language dealing with human rights in the work place has led to much improved work environments for women. Let us have more workers covered by union contracts; unions have much to offer to the Me Too movement.
Unions also recognized that sexism including harassment has to be eliminated internally within each union‘s culture. At most union meetings a statement is read out, first explaining what harassment is, and then stating that harassment, including sexual harassment, will not be tolerated. At many union functions ombudspersons are appointed to deal with any harassment.
So where do we go from here? Like many of the progressive advances we have made over the past decades two things are clear. One is that we still have a way to go. Sexual harassment is harmful in itself but it is only one part of the whole wide spectrum of misogyny. We need to address that whole spectrum from gender conformity to pay equity to sexual violence. Unions have been allies in the past and, if supported and pushed, will continue to fight sexism.
The second point is that the advances that have been won by women and their allies can be taken away, especially in the backward political climate of the Trumps and Bolsonaros and their ilk. It is no surprise that these reactionary old white men long for the days when ‘men were men and women knew their place.’ And unions didn’t exist. That is why movements such as the Labour movement and the Me Too movement, among others, need to work shoulder to shoulder to win the feminist prize of true equality.
Writing about the Me Too movement, Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle says “ I think history will write this is a big shift. Like many big shifts we’re still calibrating. We had an old norm, we’ve gotten rid of it. What are the new ones? We’re still trying to figure this out but I think this will absolutely be seminal for women in the workplace.”