Member-To-Member Harassment: What To Do
As another International Women's Day rolls around March 8, women workers are still facing down infuriatingly familiar challenges—including the persistence of workplace sexual harassment, especially for those of us working low-wage jobs.
Unions took up the cause of sexual harassment in a concerted way in 1979, when the term was first coined and publicized through a barrage of speak-outs, pamphlets, and trainings by women activists.
We reprint here a greatly shortened version of a training for officers and stewards, developed by United Electrical Workers staffers David Cohen and Carol Lambiase, now retired.
The complete training notes, including additional situations and answers to the questions, are available here. And a workshop on this topic will be given at the Labor Notes Conference April 4-6 in Chicago.
How do union leaders deal with and educate some of our members who are less than perfect people? What are our legal and moral obligations? Our bedrock is that we are for unity of all workers.
We know what to do when a member of management harasses a member. A grievance is filed. Charges with a government agency may be, as well.
It is more difficult when a member harasses another member. We were brought up in the union movement to feel it is wrong for the union to “turn in” a member to management. We instinctively don’t like the idea of management “disciplining” workers, as if we were children.
We are taught that our role is to defend workers from management’s discipline.
But we also know we need unity to fight the employer. If one section of the membership feels the union won’t protect them, even from other workers, then our unity is in danger. And we know it is not the victims of harassment who are endangering our unity.
Task 1. In your group discuss cases of member-to-member harassment in your local. Did they involve sexual harassment, racial harassment, or just one member harassing another?
Task 2. Read worksheets on what constitutes racial and sexual harassment, the duty of fair representation, proper grievance handling, a union committee to investigate and educate, should the union “turn in” the offender to management? and what to say to a harasser.
Task 3. Each group will then take one of three situations (see box) and answer the questions.
THE UNION’S DUTY
When a member comes to the union to complain about another union member, then the union has an obligation to do something.
First, because we are opposed to harassment of any kind, and especially racial or sexual harassment. We believe in equality and unity.
Second, the employer has an obligation under law to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This includes a workplace free from racial or sexual harassment and free from the fear of violence.
The employer has the obligation to enforce rules and make discipline to keep the workplace free from intimidation and harassment. It has an obligation to make sure everyone knows that racial or sexual harassment is illegal and won’t be tolerated. It also has an obligation to provide education so that all workers know what constitutes harassment.
So, legally, if a worker comes to us with a complaint of harassment, then our obligation (besides the union’s obligation to help a member) is to make the employer live up to its responsibility under the law, to provide a safe workplace.
A SPECIAL COMMITTEE
The union may want to set up a special committee where members can report instances of harassment. This committee will have the responsibility to investigate complaints and to help educate members on why harassment is wrong.
The committee should be representative of the workforce: men, women, Black, white, etc.
Help Put the Movement Back in the Labor Movement
Become a Labor Notes Monthly Sustaining Donor
Monthly donors receive a free "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt and a subscription to our magazine. Donate Now. »
The committee can take complaints and investigate and then make recommendations to the grievance committee.
The committee can also lay down the law in cases where it is clear that a member is harassing another member. They can explain to the member why what they are doing is wrong, why they can be disciplined for doing it, and that the union cannot tolerate this behavior.
When the committee is conducting its investigation it must be sensitive to the feelings of the victim. The victim often doesn’t want details gossiped about in the workplace, or doesn’t want to endlessly repeat what happened before lots of people. The committee must treat details as confidential and the victim with respect.
TURN THEM IN?
Should the union “turn in” the offender? We would of course like to avoid this. We would like for offenders to admit what they were doing was wrong and apologize. We would have to tell the offender that any repeat offenses would force the union to demand that management take action to protect the victim.
Using this union warning approach depends on how severe the harassment has been, whether violence or threatened violence is involved, how long it has been going on, and whether the victim is willing to go along with this solution.
We should never make the victim the villain. This can happen if people start putting pressure on the victim not to “press charges.” “Oh, don’t say anything or poor Pete will get in trouble.” Poor old Pete is a grownup and if guilty must pay.
We should also reject solutions that make the victim pay, such as transferring to another department or shift. Make the harasser suffer, not the victim.
It may be that the only solution is to make the employer take action against the harasser. If the harasser refuses to stop, or if the actions were such that the other worker feels threatened, then “turning in” the harasser may be the only solution.
In doing this we are defending a union member and defending the unity of our union.
What should the steward say to a harasser? Let him know that the behavior must stop immediately. Tell him that such harassment is against the law and will not be tolerated.
He may not have intended to harass and may be shocked and hurt to hear of the allegation. But what matters is not the harasser’s intent but the behavior.
A steward can tell a harasser that the union may not be able to support him if he continues the behavior, which is in violation of union conduct codes.
It might be appropriate to suggest that the harasser attend education or counseling sessions. As a recourse of last resort, this could be negotiated with management and made a requirement of his continued employment.