Discrimination against working women is an obviously serious matter, and there's a lot more of it than is generally realized, as a new report makes all too clear.
The report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, says that every year, a substantial portion of the country's employers are charged with discrimination against women under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the nation's basic civil rights law. Certainly not all employers charged with discrimination are guilty as charged. But plenty of them are found guilty.
The research report cites a recent study, covering the 12-year period between 1990 and 2002, which found that 13 percent of the country's business establishments had at least one charge of sex discrimination brought against them.
One of the problems is that only about one-fourth of the discrimination charges against employers ever wind up in court. Even fewer result in court orders against the offending employers and monetary settlements for the women workers involved.
That's not necessarily bad, since the main enforcer of the law, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) usually tries first to solve the conflicts between women and their bosses out of court, through mediation. And most cases are actually settled that way with little or no harm done.
Another survey, covering the years 2000 to 2008, showed there were more than 20,000 cases of sex discrimination. Among other cases of employment bias, only discrimination based on race was cited more often than sex discrimination. There were fewer cases involving age discrimination, fewer involving discrimination against disabled workers, and far fewer involving discrimination based on workers' religion or national origin.
Naturally enough, the Coalition of Labor Union Women – CLUW, as it's called – and other labor-oriented groups say unions are key weapons in fighting sex discrimination on the job. And they're right about that.
Many unions, for instance, have negotiated contracts that contain anti-sexual harassment policies. As CLUW's executive director, Carol Rosenblatt, says, "We have shop stewards to see that they're enforced." But if an employer nevertheless fails to remedy the situation, the women are left with no choice but to turn to the courts or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
One union, the United Electrical Workers, called a strike when the firm involved retaliated against union stewards who were fighting sexual harassment.
CLUW's Rosenblatt recommends that unions make clear to women workers that the union will fight to stop sexual harassment on the job. Her advice is simple. "Make the harasser pay . . . not the victim," says Rosenblatt. She says that " too often the victim leaves her job and the harasser stays in his."
There are guidelines available for unions faced with sexual harassment. Among the most important have been developed by the United Steel Workers union, which established a committee within the union's civil rights department that investigates sexual harassment complaints.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) spreads the word using the media that its members work in and on . . . radio, TV, Facebook, Twitter and the like. That's AFTRA's effective way of raising general awareness about sexual harassment and discrimination on the job.
Although women teachers are in the majority nationwide, schools, as Rosenblatt notes, are not required to provide anti-harassment training. But Connie Cordovilla, the American Federation of Teachers vice president for civil rights, has developed anti-harassment contract language for AFT locals to use when bargaining with school officials.
The Transport Workers Union, which represents the nation's bus and subway drivers, has developed an anti-harassment teaching course that it's offering to employers. It not only deals with sexual harassment by employers, but also teaches women drivers how to deal with passengers who harass them.
As Rosenblatt said, "a driver faced with a flasher has to know how to respond."
Although sexual harassment on the job is widespread, as a key part of the overall pattern of violence against women, Rosenblatt notes that not all women are aware of it, and not all know where to go when it occurs. Which is why the Coalition of Labor Union Women will continue its education campaign to combat what Rosenblatt rightly characterizes as "this most ugly form of discrimination."
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. You can contact him through his website, dickmeister.com.