When we think of the biggest issues at work, wages and benefits usually top the list. But in many industries, sexual harassment and assault are huge concerns—even if nobody’s talking about it.
Workers who experience harassment on the job can file charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, but they face many hurdles to get even a hearing. Deadlines are short. Only employers with 15 or more employees are covered.
Add to that the stigma and the fear of reprisal, and it’s no wonder that the vast majority of workers who experience harassment or assault do not go public.
So how can a union or worker center unmask the problem and begin to tackle it? Current campaigns by janitors, hotel workers, and restaurant workers offer a roadmap.
Sexual harassment can happen in any workplace, but women who work alone are especially at risk. Immigration status or language barriers can also make some more vulnerable.
Janitors are a case in point. They’re predominantly female, often working late at night in isolated workplaces, in an industry divided up among many subcontractors. The 2015 PBS documentary “Rape on the Night Shift” exposed how widespread and underreported sexual violence is for janitors. In the film, numerous janitors tell their stories of abuse on the job, many for the first time.
The documentary “really struck a chord” among members, says Alejandra Valles, vice president of SEIU United Service Workers West, representing janitors, security officers, and airport service workers across California.
After the union screened the video for janitors, its elected executive board met. “The women in the room, one by one, stood up and started sharing stories,” says Valles.
Ask for help
Master contracts covering 20,000 janitors were about to expire, so a first step was to add a question on the bargaining survey about whether members had experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job. The union got 5,000 responses to the question.
“It was one of the top three issues,” says Valles: “wages, sexual harassment, and workload. It couldn’t be clearer it was an issue.”
But the union wasn’t sure where to go next. Staffers were concerned about how to support members, says Valles. “We heard: ‘The union is not social workers. What’s going to happen? We’re going to trigger people.’”
A key lesson was to take leadership from organizations that already knew how to support sexual assault survivors, says Valles. The union partnered with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and the East Los Angeles Women’s center.
Train peer educators
With help from these groups, the union began to train members who had come forward with personal stories to become promotoras, or peer educators. Nonunion janitors who had experienced harassment also joined the promotora circles.
Leticia Soto, a USWW member and night-shift janitor, took the training. “We went through a personal process of overcoming all we had gone through,” she says. “But we also learned how to go out and give support to women who, because they don’t have a union or because of fear, are still staying in the shadows.”
“It was clear what we needed and what we were lacking,” says Valles. “It was education in the buildings, the way we’ve done on immigration or wage theft.”
Sixty women are now active promotoras, the backbone of the campaign. The union also led a “compadre circle” where men came together to talk about their role in stopping sexual harassment.
This story was originally published on Labor Notes.