The #MeToo hashtag first garnered viral traction in October 2017, followed by the professional undoing of numerous high-profile predators in the media. In the following weeks and months, the question arose as to whether this would be a moment or a movement against sexual violence and harassment: Would the felling of famous bad men give way to a struggle for significant, structural change?
Since then, thousands of workers, from the fast food, hotel, and farming industries, and beyond, have taken to the streets and the courts and have staged major walkouts to protest pervasive workplace harassment and abuse. Numerous demands have been won. This week in New York, victory took the form of some of the most robust anti-harassment, gender equality legislation to be passed in the country. On Wednesday night, state lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate passed sweeping anti-sexual harassment legislation, which will cover all employers and employees in the state, in both the public and private sectors.
The successful bills are the latest progressive legislation to pass the newly Democrat-led legislature, with the support of a cadre of left-wing lawmakers elected in November 2018, worker advocates, victims, and activists. In particular, the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a collective of former legislative staffers who personally experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in Albany, pushed for a reckoning with the Capitol’s historic negligence on the issue. In May, the state legislature held its first hearings on sexual harassment in 27 years.
“Today’s victory is a culmination of the blood, sweat, and tears of courageous survivors, fierce advocates, and dedicated lawmakers,” state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who represents the Bronx and Westchester and sponsored the Senate bill, said in a statement. “With this legislation, employers across all sectors will be held accountable for addressing all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and survivors will be given the necessary time to report complaints and seek the justice they deserve.”
No single set of new laws can end the endemic of gendered workplace oppression in one fell swoop; the patriarchy will not fall in a day. The decimated state of unions across the country renders the fight for robust worker protections an ongoing, uphill struggle. But this new legislation constitutes a concrete step toward holding employers accountable while protecting employees against future discrimination and harassment; at the very least, it signals an end to the long era in which such issues were swept under the legislative rug.
Provisions in the Senate and Assembly bills include an end to non-disclosure agreements, according to a complainant’s preference. NDAs have long served to silence victims who fear legal retribution for speaking out. The legislation would also eliminate the “severe or pervasive” standard in harassment cases, which is hard to prove and excludes many forms of workplace mistreatment. The period in which an employee is permitted to report harassment complaints to a state agency will also be increased from one to three years, in recognition of the time it can take to process sexual harassment and abuse. Crucially, the legislation expands protections to cover domestic workers and contractors.
“We formed the Sexual Harassment Working Group so Albany would face its past, to protect future workers,” the working group said in a joint statement. “Together, we pushed for public hearings, and today’s bill is the result of centering survivors’ voices to craft meaningful legislation that will truly protect workers.”
As with any legislation, political will means little without effective implementation. The bills task the commissioner of labor, in consultation with the commissioner of human rights, to conduct a study that reviews, among other things, requirements for employers to provide sexual harassment trainings and policy. The study will also assess the efficacy of further training in reducing workplace discrimination in addition to sexual harassment. “Today’s victory is not won in isolation — this is only the beginning of our journey toward building a truly harassment-free New York for all,” said Biaggi.
These bills set a welcome higher standard to which employers are to be held, while providing tangibly greater protections for workers. There’s little doubt that ongoing political pressure and worker organizing will be necessary to see these provisions fully implemented. And there remains even less doubt that the movement against patriarchal oppression and toward justice for all workers can hardly stop there.