This article is adapted from Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists, published by Labor Notes in 1992.
While some things have changed since then, we’ve found much of the book’s advice is still quite relevant.
The book is available for $6 at labornotes.org/store. You’ll find workshops on confronting sexual harassment at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, April 6-8.
It’s hard enough to confront workplace sexual harassment when it’s coming from management. But what about harassment between co-workers?
It’s a more difficult issue—but one that has to be addressed if the union is worth its salt.
The most important step is confronting co-worker harassment head-on, even if some argue that the union should not “choose sides.”
“There can be no solidarity with sexist and racist behavior,” said Peggy Nash, at the time an assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor).
Unions that shy away from dealing with co-worker harassment may find themselves with new problems and divisions. Women may turn to management, and some co-workers may blame them for getting co-workers in trouble.
FROM A UNION MEMBER
Many women are subjected to insults, abusive language, and much more from male co-workers. Women should, of course, start by telling harassers in no uncertain terms to stop. (See box.)
If this doesn’t work, the steward can begin by informing the harasser that his behavior is inappropriate—and illegal. The harasser can be warned that the union may not be able to defend him if he continues to violate union codes of conduct.
If the harassment persists, the steward can file a grievance. Management is responsible for providing a harassment-free workplace, so it is still liable for harassment from a union member.
The grievance will claim that the company has failed to protect the woman.
However, by writing a grievance, you may lose control of the problem, enabling management to discipline—or fire—a union member. Often, supervisors choose to fire harassers rather than provide counseling or training. It’s easier for them.
There are ways to arbitrate disputes between co-workers without involving the company. Enid Eckstein recalls a harassment dispute at Auto Workers Local 51 in Detroit, where she was a chief steward:
“One brother was accused of harassing a young sister. He was reported to have used abusive sexual language repeatedly. His employment record was not the best, and the company wanted to fire him.
“I did not want him fired, but I wanted to do something that would leave an impression on him. I worked out an agreement where he would be counseled by myself, and he would be placed on another job in an area away from that particular woman. This was acceptable to her.
“Through several discussions, the man involved began to understand. After all, he did not like it when someone used racial slurs against him because he was Black. I used my experiences with him to talk to other men who were abusive, making it clear that the union would not tolerate this behavior.”
A GRIEVANCE FOR BOTH?
Sometimes, however, the union cannot solve co-worker harassment internally. In these cases, the steward may need to file a grievance for the woman, protesting the company’s inability to provide a harassment-free environment. If the company disciplines the harasser, the union may choose to file a grievance for him as well. This is tricky, but, as described, it is sometimes possible to find a solution that does not involve firing.
If the harassment is severe, however, or if the harasser is a repeat offender who refuses to reform, the union may decide not to arbitrate his grievance.
Take this story from the Canadian Auto Workers. A member was fired for attempted rape of a co-worker and grieved his dismissal. The union magazine reported:
“The bargaining committee, concerned about the legal duty of fair representation, called the victim to testify about her ordeal, even though the facts were not in dispute. The grueling, humiliating experience further traumatized the victim. Where was the duty to represent her? The plant women’s committee contacted the national office and after intervention, the bargaining committee did not proceed to arbitration.”
It’s important that officials conduct a thorough and sensitive investigation. Here are guidelines that will help convince both the woman and the harasser that the union is serious.
Talking with the Woman. All discussions should be held in private and on a need-to-know basis. The union should work closely with the woman to determine the resolution that she wants.
During the investigation, the rep should be sensitive to the fact that the woman is likely to be upset by her experience.
Don’t cross-examine her.
Speak in a matter-of-fact manner. This will help take the tension out of a difficult situation. The rep might acknowledge that discussing the incident is uncomfortable, but that sexual harassment is not a personal matter but a widespread problem. The rep should express confidence that the incident can be discussed objectively.
Avoid asking “why” questions, or questions that imply that the woman did something wrong. For example, don’t ask her why she didn’t do something about this sooner.
Do not ask leading questions such as, “Did he touch you on the arm or shoulder?” Instead, ask open-ended questions, like, “Where did the person touch you?”
Encourage the woman to talk specifically. Ask her to describe the situation in detail. Get all the facts.
Ask where the behavior took place and who was involved. Find out if there were witnesses, whether the behavior has happened before, and how long it has been going on.
When she finishes, ask if there is anything else the harasser has done that has not yet been discussed.
Finally, ask the woman what she wants to have happen.
Talking with the Alleged Harasser.
Be serious and to the point.
Begin with, “The purpose of this meeting is to talk about an allegation of sexual harassment.”
Focus on the behavior, not the intention of the alleged harasser.
Ask the man to respond to each allegation separately.
If he admits to the behavior, tell him that he must stop immediately, no matter if his intentions were harmless or misunderstood. If he denies guilt, explain that you have two sides of the story and that you will be doing additional fact-finding before making a determination.