Abused: Working Women Face Widespread Harassment and Violence

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By Pat Simpson

Pat Simpson, Emerita Professor, Loyola University, formerly taught in the Labor Education Program, UIUC. A longtime labor and social justice activist, she is  currently a member of the Chambana Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and of the Quintessential Poets.

It’s been a long time comin’. Not since the Clarence Thomas hearings has so much national attention been focused on sexual harassment and violence. Gratifyingly, with the rise of the “#MeToo” and “Time’s Up” campaigns, multiple female accusers have avoided the fate of Anita Hill, Thomas’s accuser.  They’ve been believed and as a result, powerful men have suffered consequences. Where redress has occurred, however, it has centered on the circumstances of professional women in high-powered media and entertainment fields. Demonstrating awareness of the dangers of a myopic focus, the Hollywood actresses who initially organized the “Time’s Up” movement created a Legal Defense Fund designed to help women across all sectors of the economy who experience sexual harassment. In a public letter announcing the launch of this $13 million fund and other efforts, the “Time’s Up’’ organizers stated: “We also recognize our privilege and the fact that we have access to enormous platforms to amplify our voices … that farmworker women and countless individuals employed in other industries have not been afforded.”

While the successes and durability of their efforts remain to be seen, “Me Too’s” extension of advocacy efforts to working-class women in low-paid, low-status jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy is laudable. The specific sources of extreme vulnerability for women in these jobs both overlap and vary. Poverty and income inadequacy undergirded by low wages are major factors in almost all of these jobs. At the rise of industrial manufacturing, for example, female factory workers felt compelled to submit to the sexual advances of foremen who held the exclusive power of hiring and firing employees, a power that only began to be tempered with the successful organization of modern industrial unions. Widows and wives of disabled husbands with young children at home were especially desperate to find and hold jobs.

Today, manufacturing accounts for 11.7% of sexual harassment claims, the third highest proportion across all industrial sectors (Center for American Progress). One of the major sources of vulnerability in manufacturing is the minority status of women on the shop floor within many factories and plants. Such women are viewed as outsiders, interlopers and, perhaps most importantly in a period of manufacturing decline, a new source of competition for the decreasing number of relatively high-paying, often unionized, blue-collar jobs.

The highest number of sexual harassment claims derive from the service sector. The accommodation and food services industry, including restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and hospitality establishments, accounts for 14.2% of claims; while retail makes up 13.4%. A recent The Nation article highlights multiple sources of vulnerability in food service jobs. Employees are often young and unaware of their rights; the repetitive, unskilled nature of their work means they are easily replaced if they challenge their working conditions; alcohol serving fuels inappropriate customer behavior; and a reliance on tipping to supplement inadequate hourly pay reinforces a fear of challenging the groping, lewd comments and worse that waitresses and bartenders regularly face.

The PBS series Frontline recently featured a documentary recounting the horrors faced by immigrant women working as after-hours cleaners in hotels and business establishments, including physical assault and rape. For women in these industries, working alone at night contributes to their victimization by supervisors. Furthermore, the fact that the women are often undocumented creates a circumstance where they are reluctant to expose their predators, and the predators themselves know this. In one case covered in the documentary, a supervisor taunted his victim: “What are you going to do, report me?”

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Relying on sexual harassment claims alone as a measure of harassment is extremely problematic. Nowhere is this more apparent than for agricultural workers. The percentage of claims this industry accounts for is only .83%, yet investigative reports and surveys suggest that the use of formal claims is a flawed measure: harassment in this industry is much higher. “The history of agriculture in the U.S. has always been one of sexual violence,” states Monica Ramirez, President of Alianza Nacional de Campesinsas. “On farms, conditions are ripe for it.” Several studies support Ramirez’s charge. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that nearly all of the women interviewed had experienced sexual harassment or violence or knew someone who had.  A 2010 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center of 150 Mexican women working in California’s Central Valley found that 80% of them had been victimized. Undocumented status plays a major role in the abuse of these women. Language barriers also make it more difficult for female farm workers to know their rights, not only because they do not speak English, but because even where material is printed in Spanish, many women speak only one of the Mayan or other indigenous languages.

As mentioned earlier, unions brought some relief to women in manufacturing early in the 20th century by limiting the control of supervisors over hiring and firing. How are unions and worker advocacy groups doing today in fighting sexual harassment? In agriculture, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully sued growers for back pay and damages in cases involving abuse of female farmworkers, and through their Fair Food Program the Coalition has secured commitments to new policies and procedures for deterring and reporting instances of sexual harassment.

After surveying 500 members in Chicago hotels and casinos and discovering that 58% of maids and 77% of casino workers reported being harassed, UNITE HERE Local 1 spearheaded a successful drive to pass a city council ordinance mandating the provision of panic buttons to all workers whose duties require them to be alone with a guest. The law also requires businesses to articulate and enforce clear sexual harassment reporting procedures that protect against retaliation. Seattle UNITE lobbied to successfully pass a similar law in 2016.

AFSCME and SEIU have long included anti-sexual harassment clauses in union contracts and done considerable steward training on how to handle harassment grievances. Online materials are also available to members informing them about channels available to them in the event they are sexually harassed.

Especially In manufacturing plants where a kind of “macho” shop floor culture can predominate and women are in the minority, ambivalence about taking up harassment grievances is a real possibility. Given that it is often male bargaining unit members that are the perpetrators of harassment, in taking up such grievances local union staff are put in the position of facilitating disciplinary action against “one of the boys”—perhaps even a local leader himself—against women with few bargaining unit allies. For union leadership, the potential repercussions of such underlying power dynamics come election time can be considerable. They also go far in explaining why women involved in a recent EEOC anti-discrimination case against management of two Chicago-based Ford plants were also outspokenly critical of their UAW union locals in stories covering the civil suit (New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times).

As the press coverage of the Ford case clarify, failure to take forceful action against sexual harassment, including pressing hard against managers who ultimately bear legal responsibility for hostile work environments, opens unions to criticism and condemnation. In a period when unions are under attack on multiple fronts, such inaction becomes another point of exposure. More importantly, fighting sexual harassment is an essential mobilizing issue for unions. Lastly, in the fullest spirit of social unionism, the labor movement’s goal is to ensure that all workers are treated with dignity and respect both in the workplace and in the wider society.

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