Advocates Equip Worker Centers in Fight Against Sexual Violence

Yana Kunichoff

Myrla Baldonado is helping to strengthen the fight against workplace sexual violence by filling in the gaps in knowledge of both victim advocates and labor organizers. (Ryan Nanni / Domestic Worker Oral History Project)

Some­times the sex­u­al harass­ment was just a com­ment. At oth­er times, it was phys­i­cal assault. But in many ways, the worst part of the work­place sex­u­al vio­lence Myr­la Bal­don­a­do expe­ri­enced while employed as a domes­tic work­er for more than five years was feel­ing pow­er­less. It hap­pens all the time, and it should not be an invis­i­ble issue,” said Bal­don­a­do, now an orga­niz­er with the Chica­go-based Lati­no Union work­er center. 

Now Bal­don­a­do is help­ing to cre­ate a new par­a­digm for deal­ing with work­place sex­u­al vio­lence. The Coali­tion Against Work­place Sex­u­al Vio­lence formed more than a year ago when vic­tim advo­cates and labor orga­niz­ers in Chica­go joined forces, along with some attor­neys, to devel­op an orga­niz­ing guide for fight­ing sex­u­al assault in the workplace.

After a year of for­mu­lat­ing the new orga­niz­ing cur­ricu­lum the result was End­ing Work­place Sex­u­al Vio­lence: A Know Your Rights Cur­ricu­lum and Guide for Com­mu­ni­ty Edu­ca­tors.” Orga­niz­ers held the first train­ing ses­sion using the cur­ricu­lum in Octo­ber, bring­ing togeth­er sev­er­al work­er cen­ters and local unions. 

Mem­bers of the coali­tion say that the cross-move­ment col­lab­o­ra­tion has strength­ened the fight against work­place sex­u­al vio­lence by fill­ing in the gaps in knowl­edge of both vic­tim advo­cates and labor organizers.

With sex­u­al vio­lence already one of the most under­re­port­ed and under-pros­e­cut­ed crimes, assault in the work­place, espe­cial­ly in low-wage or poor­ly reg­u­lat­ed indus­tries — such as the domes­tic work that left Bal­don­a­do with few legal recours­es — con­tin­ues to slip under the radar, says Sheer­ine Alemzadeh, an attor­ney with the Chica­go Alliance Against Sex­u­al Exploita­tion (CAASE), and a found­ing mem­ber of the coalition. 

The Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics’ Work­place Vio­lence report, released in March 2011, found that rape and sex­u­al assault were the least like­ly of any work­place crime to be report­ed, with vic­tims of such assaults going to the police in only 39.4 per­cent of such inci­dents that occurred in the work­place between 2005 and 2009.

The low inci­dence of report­ing makes it dif­fi­cult to find cred­i­ble fig­ures, but the report not­ed that of all the non­fa­tal vio­lence expe­ri­enced in the work­place between 2005 and 2009, about 2.3 per­cent was rape or sex­u­al assault. 

The legal sys­tem places a high­er bur­den of proof on work­place sex­u­al assault than on crimes such as wage theft, mak­ing it dou­bly dif­fi­cult to pros­e­cute, says Kar­la Alt­may­er, a mem­ber of the coali­tion and attor­ney with the non-prof­it Legal Assis­tance Foun­da­tion, who works with farm­work­er women.

When a per­son who is a vic­tim of wage theft comes for­ward, it’s sim­ple to deal with. You find out how many hours, you file a com­plaint,” she said. But when it comes to work­place sex­u­al vio­lence, it becomes a mat­ter of he said, she said’ in the eyes of the employ­er and every­one else.” 

The coali­tion began meet­ing in the fall of 2012, spurred by the real­iza­tion that rape cri­sis cen­ters and work­er cen­ters were hold­ing the miss­ing pieces of the same puz­zle. While vic­tim advo­cates were lack­ing in the work­ers’ rights knowl­edge nec­es­sary for deal­ing with assault at work, work­er cen­ters were unsure about how to begin orga­niz­ing with­out prac­ti­cal knowl­edge of how to work with victims.

I invit­ed the rape cri­sis cen­ters and work­er cen­ters to a meet and greet, but there was so much ener­gy and pas­sion in the room we decid­ed to start meet­ing month­ly,” says CAASE’s Alemzadeh. One of the first goals we iden­ti­fied was greater aware­ness and recog­ni­tion of sex­u­al vio­lence in the work­er centers.” 

The first train­ing ses­sion in Octo­ber 2013 includ­ed about 25 peo­ple from a mish­mash of unions and work­er cen­ters: the Lati­no Union, Chica­go Coali­tion of House­hold Work­ers, ARISE Chica­go, Fight for 15, Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty and Work­ers’ Rights and the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union.

Some of the chal­lenges of both writ­ing and imple­ment­ing the cur­ricu­lum have been prac­ti­cal — a shoe­string bud­get and the over­whelm­ing nature of bring­ing as heavy a top­ic as sex­u­al vio­lence to the table amid orga­niz­ing for a vari­ety of oth­er press­ing issues.

Oth­er chal­lenges hit more direct­ly at the dif­fer­ences and ten­sions between how rape cri­sis cen­ters and work­er cen­ters function.

You have sex­u­al assault advo­cates and coun­selors, who are intense­ly focused on the recov­ery of indi­vid­ual vic­tims and place a very high pre­mi­um on con­fi­den­tial­i­ty and pri­va­cy, which makes sense,” says Alemzadeh. And then you have labor orga­niz­ers, whose strate­gies often involve sto­ry­telling as a way of draw­ing pub­lic atten­tion to ignored work­place injustices.”

The chal­lenge was to use the ten­sion con­struc­tive­ly,” she says, and to push both beyond the lim­its of their cur­rent models.

Añu Sel­vam, a senior legal advo­cate with Rape Vic­tim Advo­cates, says that when orga­niz­ing around sex­u­al assault in the work­place, the most impor­tant thing is not nec­es­sar­i­ly to pre­serve pri­va­cy, but to allow an indi­vid­ual to have pow­er over their own story.

Sex­u­al vio­lence is so much about pow­er and con­trol,” she said, and a loss of con­trol can be detri­men­tal to an individual’s heal­ing process.”

For some mem­bers of work­er cen­ters, the train­ing was use­ful to broad­en the under­stand­ing of whose respon­si­bil­i­ty it was to fight again sex­u­al vio­lence. Eric Rodriguez is exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Lati­no Union, which works pri­mar­i­ly with domes­tic work­ers and day labor­ers, two pro­fes­sions often seg­re­gat­ed by gender. 

When the cur­ricu­lum was first intro­duced to work­ers at the Lati­no Union, said Rodriguez, men weren’t sure how best to sup­port the women, and there were a lot of moments when a women in the orga­ni­za­tion had to step in and guide us.”

But, he said, You have to rec­og­nize your moment of fail­ure, talk about that, and com­mit to chang­ing. I was real­ly proud of the workers.”

The next step for the coali­tion is to hold their sec­ond train­ing in the spring. And beyond that, to keep fight­ing against work­place sex­u­al violence.

The cur­ricu­lum makes rec­og­niz­ing gen­der oppres­sion … part of the cul­ture in the work­er cen­ter,” said Bal­don­a­do, the domes­tic work­er-turned-orga­niz­er. There is also oppres­sion in that form, not just on the eco­nom­ic side of wages.”

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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