Making the labor movement safe for all workers

By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO President

The face of the American labor movement is changing. Half of our nation’s union members are women and almost a quarter are people of color. The labor movement must be a safe bastion for all workers: women, people of color, LGBTQ workers and, yes, white men. While public support for unions is at a two-decade high, we still are stereotyped. How many times have we read stories about a union leader misusing union (members’) funds? Thankfully, such stories are few and far between. Nonetheless, they reinforce the stereotype that unfairly paints all union leaders with a brush of corruption.

A Nov. 7 story in Bloomberg News identified high-ranking union officials, one at the AFL-CIO and another at Service Employees International Union, who used positions of power to pressure women subordinates for sexual favors. I can think of no greater sin than misusing a position of power to take advantage of workers. Not only does it send a message of corruption, it is an abuse of power reinforcing a stereotype of union leadership as “good ol’ boys.” More importantly, it sends a message to women that they are not welcome, that our movement is not a safe place for them, that their input, efforts, and leadership are less than their male counterparts.

The actions of two “good ol’ boys” who abused their power distracts from the efforts of labor leaders and organizations who have focused on addressing gender and racial equity for the last decade. Progressive union leaders know it is impossible to move forward as a movement until gender and racial justice are ingrained in our strategic plans, trainings, and in all facets of our movement. A recent article by Ana Avendaño, Vice President of Labor Engagement at United Way, and Linda Seabrook, general counsel for Futures Without Violence, provides a road map for taking the next step in gender justice:

  • 1. Recognize that sexual harassment is a workers’ rights issue. Sexual harassment weakens unions. When unions don’t take harassment seriously, they send a message to women that the union is not the place for them.
  • 2. Make sure that the union’s constitution and collectively bargained agreements contain guarantees against sexual harassment and retaliation. Include such provisions in collective bargaining agreements.
  • 3. Address member-on-member harassment.
  • 4. Create a union culture that connects union values and behavior and welcomes women as equal partners in the struggle for social and economic justice.
  • 5. Focus on prevention. Unions should work with members, leaders, and staff to ensure that they have a clear sense of what conduct is inappropriate and why, and to foster a culture that believes and respects women.
  • 6. Encourage men—especially male leaders—to step up, speak out, and work to change the culture. Men have an important role to play in showing other men that harassment is wrong.
  • 7. Create channels for members, union staff and others to report harassment quickly, before it escalates, without having to resort to formal mechanisms. Most women who suffer sexual harassment are not interested in filing complaints or engaging in legal battles.
  • 8. Train stewards in trauma-informed practices on handling claims of harassment. Part of any sexual harassment prevention and response training should include education on trauma, responses to trauma, and best practices to integrate knowledge about trauma into policies and procedures.
  • 9. Protect victims who file charges of harassment against retaliation. Fear of losing her job or demotion are among the main reasons victims don’t report sexual harassment or violence.
  • 10. Give women a voice in the grievance process, and include them as active participants. Complaints of sexual harassment often go into a deep, dark Human Resources hole.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.

1 Comment on Making the labor movement safe for all workers

  1. These actions are not isolated, not new, and not unknown by the powers that be. This is happening every day in every workplace — union and non-union — and we have a duty to do better to shine a light instead of sweeping under the rug as we have for decades. Being progressive is not a license to act with impunity and hide behind being a “good guy.”

    The intent here is good, I get it — these issues do distract from the work we are doing to improve work life, and they give employers fuel to push workers away from unions. And we do good work to try to fix these issues in other people’s worksites. But we need to clean up our own house, too. Because this definitely isn’t just 2 people and it definitely isn’t over.

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