When women have a union: What's next for #MeToo in the workplace

How unions, perhaps the largest women’s organizations in this country, play a role in workplace sexual harassment

Published January 22, 2018 4:58AM (EST)

#MeToo Survivors' March in Hollywood (Getty/Mark Ralston)
#MeToo Survivors' March in Hollywood (Getty/Mark Ralston)

Janine Jackson interviewed Jane McAlevey about #MeToo and the labor movement for the Jan. 12, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: As soon as you heard about the #MeToo initiative to fight workplace sexual harassment, you knew you’d soon see a headline reading, “When #MeToo Goes Too Far.” Just like well-off white folks leaping to explain to Black Lives Matter that they love the cause—it’s just that they’re doing it wrong—few things were more predictable than that the Bret Stephenses of the world would write articles saying, “I’m against harassment and all, but….”

We have the straw men: They’re saying asking a co-worker for a date is the same thing as raping them. The ironic belittling: Great, now no one can have fun anymore. There’s the chin-stroking observer: Well, now the pendulum has swung so far this way, it has to swing back towards a little bit of harassment.

And there are easy targets: hypocrisy, opportunism, self-aggrandizement. Some people don’t practice what they preach. Some don’t really know how to talk about things that aren’t happening to them. Any movement for justice has to recognize that people are differently situated, and have different relationships to power.

For those who take gender equity seriously, even when it isn’t “Flavor of the Month,” the question isn’t, “What’s wrong with #MeToo?” but “How do we expand this moment, deepen it, so it grows some roots that make it harder to push over or blow past by those who are eager to do so?” A key part is recognizing the systems, in and beyond the workplace, that abet the problem, and assessing what tools we have to fight it.

In These Times: What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement

Jane McAlevey is a longtime organizer; author of, most recently, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, along with 2012’s Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell).  And she has a new book called Striking Back, due out soon from Verso. Her article, “What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement,” appeared recently in In These TimesShe joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jane McAlevey.

Jane McAlevey: Thanks, Janine, it’s great to be here.

JJ: It’s hard to explain “why now?” for something that’s been a problem forever, but it’s happening, and I just think it’d be rotten for it to turn into a grad school exercise, where, if we can’t figure out the ideologically pure and perfect response, we don’t do anything, except armchair-critique the people who are trying to do something. Or we just read media, and believe that what they focus on is all that’s meaningful. Your article starts with, OK, calling individuals out, so-called “naming and shaming,” is one thing—and, by the way, we can see why media would stop at that level; that’s where the juice is, you know—but what comes next?

And it seems, to me anyway, natural to look to the historical defenders of people in the workplace: labor unions. But then, you see some reasons that today’s labor movement is not really prepared, or best prepared, to take on that work.

JMcA: I think several things, I guess, about it. On the one hand, while labor unions may not be in the best position that we’ve ever been in to take on this crisis, frankly—which is not, as you point out, a new crisis; it’s as old as time, it’s as old as the patriarchy, right? But the simple fact is, they are still, I think, the most effective strategy we have right now for dealing with the kind of abuses that the vast majority of women workers, which is the working class, actually suffer in our country. They are still, warts and all, the best solution to the day-to-day crises that women find themselves in when it comes to a sexually harassing employer. And, of course, I think it goes well beyond that, too, the narrow confines of what’s happening in the workplace.

Jane McAlevey

So there’s two or three things I was trying to address in that article. One is, as you pointed out, getting past naming and shaming. I mean, I’m fine with naming and shaming, [but] there is sort of an almost pornographic nature to the naming and shaming. So people are reading all the stories about, you know, this guy did that and blah blah blah. But if that’s all we do, we are missing a huge moment, and that’s what I’m trying to address in the article.

So one is sort of, in the big picture, what do we do? I argue, in fact, as is the title of my book, No Shortcuts, I don’t think that there are any simple solutions. What I was trying to argue in the piece is two-fold: One, the labor movement needs to do what I call sort of “connecting the dots,” between this moment and what real solutions look like, which is actually having a trade union, so that something like the human resources department of your employer can go from being, frankly, a dangerous place for most women to walk into if they have a sexual harassment claim against their employer, because human resource departments in fact are there to defend the employer, and make sure that their bosses aren’t being sued.

Except for when you have a union. Because, when women have a union, and if the issue is abuse of some kind on the continuum of sexual harassment, whether that’s—by the way—disparate pay going on in the workplace, or whether its actual sexual harassment, you don’t have to walk in alone. You, typically, are advised never to walk in alone. You’ve got a union shop steward or some series of coworkers with you, because your union contract will actually outline that you are allowed to bring in representatives of your choice from the union; that could be your coworker on the job. You walk in not alone, you walk in with a witness, you walk in with a strategy, you walk in with the power to actually do something about it, because it comes from a union-negotiated collective agreement.

And that is the huge difference between a nonunion workplace and a unionized workplace. So that to me is profound. We’re at a place in this country where unions have been so beaten back that most workers don’t have one, so I think they don’t understand how to connect that the best solution, still, to the #MeToo crisis is having a union.

And then there’s a second issue I’m sort of challenging in the article, which is that out of the #MeToo movement moment, there’s really a broader gender equity fight that we need to have in this country, that we’re basically not having, and that that is the fight that I’m challenging the labor movement to have, which is to raise expectations that women in this country (and men for that matter, all people, but really women) can fight for and achieve the kind of gender equity that our sisters in most of Western Europe have achieved decades before us, like universal childcare, universal healthcare, income supports that allow women to be meaningful participants in the labor force.

So it’s a two-part sort of article, trying to call attention to both issues.

JJ: I keep coming back on this show to the idea of vision, and one of the things you say in the piece is that these things like paid maternity and paternity care and free childcare and free healthcare, it’s not pie in the sky; as you noted, other countries have these things. But you have to be able to imagine it in order to fight for it.

FAIR.org: Jane McAlevey on Michigan 'Right to Work'

JMcA: Yes, exactly, exactly. And I think, not only is it not pie in the sky, it’s also, I mean, whether you watch a Michael Moore movie, Where to Invade Next, or—we have to remind ourselves, this isn’t “pie in the sky.” Going back to the last time I was on your show, which was for my book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), I’m calling for the labor movement to raise the expectations bar here. Let’s set up a set of demands that really get people excited about what we’re calling for, which goes way beyond a $15-an-hour wage. Which, by the way, most women in the two fields I’ve worked most in, education and healthcare, are already beyond a $15-an-hour wage; what they need is free childcare, what they need is control of their schedule; what they need is maternity and paternity leave, right? So I’m calling on the labor movement to step it up, to a much larger vision of where we need to go as a movement.

And I think the third dot I’m trying to connect at the end of the story is that, look, it’s time for the Women’s March that’s coming up again, right, the anniversary of the huge Women’s March last year; I’m also challenging the women’s movement in this country to get behind and embrace the idea that unions, in fact, are essential. While they are still the biggest single force inside of the progressive tent, we’re really slammed and flat on our backs right now, so what we need is the kind of energy of millions of women marching, with a whole bunch of new banners that say, “The solution to gender equity and sexual harassment is actually having a good union.”

If we think of it, unions are also the largest women’s organization in this country. In fact, we are, numerically, the largest women’s organization. But unions, let’s face it, we are under profound attack, we’ve been under profound attack, we’re under profound attack again under the Trump administration; there’s a series of devastating legal rulings coming up.

So in the article I call on the EMILY’s Lists of the world, and all of the PACs, political action committees, that are gender-focused, to embrace that a core litmus test of any endorsement, by any kind of women-focused organization or women-focused political action committee, has to be absolutely defending and expanding the right of trade unions to exist in this country, because that’s what’s going to get us things like universal childcare.

JJ: And neither of us are deluded about the issues internal to unions that are problematic and that are troubling, and it’s not about ignoring that; but, as you were talking about walking in alone, that seems to me to go right to this Murphy Oil case, and I wonder if you can explain this Supreme Court case that listeners may not have heard anything about. The Supreme Court heard it in October; it was kind of a one-day story. What’s going on with National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil that’s relevant here?

JMcA: Murphy Oil is essentially…. The timing to me is almost bizarre, in terms of the #MeToo movement moment. It’s not bizarre in terms of the long, sad attack on workers’ rights in this country. But Murphy Oil, essentially, is going to say that it’s OK for any employer in this country to make a requirement that, when a worker clocks in for their first day at work, when they get hired for a new job, buried in the paperwork that they’re going to sign (that half will probably not read), is going to be a little thing that waives their right to sue their employer. It’s going to waive their right to participate in class action lawsuits, which, by the way, are how a lot of gender-equity has happened in the past. Some of the biggest, most important equal rights, in terms of wages, decisions that have come down in this country, have been through women taking class action lawsuits.

So, what’s interesting is, at the exact moment when a lot of women might be deciding to stand up and say, “We want to sue an employer over some gross persistent sexual harassment,” the Murphy Oil case is going to actually prevent women from doing so. It will become legal—it’s never been legal before—it will become legal, assuming that the justices do a 5–4 ruling in Murphy, workers will now be forced to sign contracts that read like your cell phone contract, in 3-point font buried on page 12 of some rolled-up agreement… or your washing machine, it’s like workers as a consumer washing machine.

It’s going to prevent nonunion workers, I should be clear, from taking action against their employer.  Oddly, it underscores the need for unions.

Look, the Trump administration has a tenfold plan to kill unions. But they’re not just coming after unions; they’re coming after the rights of all workers, which I think is why they go after unions, and that’s what Murphy Oil is.

So, it’s going to do something else, we believe, which is eliminate what’s called Section 7 protections under the National Labor Relations Act, which means, it’s essentially a very legalistic step, which boils down to this: Since 1935 in this country, under the National Labor Relations Act, all workers, regardless of whether they were trying to form a union or not, had what was called “protection for concerted activity,” which means if a bunch of workers get together to try and resolve something on the job collectively, they were protected from being fired. That provision, we believe, is also going to be stripped away from the law, assuming Murphy Oil is a 5–4 ruling, which is what we assume it will be. And that, they’ve basically got a bullseye on the alt-labor movement.

JJ: Now “alt-labor movement,” that’s– folks will be thinking about Fight for $15, or groups like Make the Road, that are not themselves unions….

JMcA: —Restaurant Opportunities Center, exactly, all the groups that have been showing some real success, they’ve been heavily using Section 7 protections under the Act, but not in the cause of forming a union. If Murphy Oil goes through, we believe that they’re going to strip Section 7 protections, which ironically will push people back to only having concerted activity protection if they are trying to form a union, which is sort of weird, except, again, we know that with the other mechanisms of the anti–trade union behavior that the Trump administration is [doing], like stripping all the enforcers from the National Labor Relations Board; they’re not going to exactly make it easy to have protection from the National Labor Relations Act, even if they are trying to form a union, right? Which is why my lifelong argument is, it’s going to take a whole lot of internal organizing as well as community support to rebuild the labor movement, which is just the support we need right now from the women’s movement.

JJ: I do think that people are genuinely interested, some of them for the first time, in how to make change happen, you know, how to actually do organizing — not to be confused with tweeting your opinions or sharing a story on Facebook—perfectly legit exercises in themselves, just not the same thing as organizing. I remember Alicia Garza talking about being in people’s living rooms, knee-to-knee, you know.

JMcA: Absolutely!

JJ:  And you have to have, also, a theory of change, you have to be thinking about how change actually happens, right?

JMcA: Yes, and I think knee-to-knee is perfect. We talk a lot about face-to-face organizing. A lot of people say to me, “You know, well, Jane, in the era of social media, why do we have to do face-to-face organizing?” And the truth is, there is no way that, by establishing a tweeting relationship with someone, you’re going to be able to help carry that person through a deeply fearful moment. And fear is the weapon of choice, not just by union busters, but, since you mentioned Alicia Garza, right, whether it’s the institutionalized police forces, whether it’s…whatever the mobilization that we’re doing is, whether it’s Standing Rock, right? Fear is the weapon of our opposition, and for people to get past fearful moments, they generally need to have built face-to-face, knee-to-knee solidarity with the people that they’re in the struggle with. And that’s part of what organizing is.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with Jane McAlevey. Her most recent book is No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. You can find her article, “What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement,” online at InTheseTimes.org.

Jane McAlevey, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

JMcA: Thank you

By Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin.

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Jane Mcalevey #metoo The Labor Movement Unions Workplace Sexual Harassment