What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement

Jane McAlevey December 27, 2017

Teachers and supporters protest school closings outside the Chicago Public Schools HQ the night before a meeting of the Board of Education in February, 2011. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Teachers Union)

My first #MeToo mem­o­ry is from the kitchen of the Red Eagle Din­er on Route 59 in Rock­land Coun­ty, N.Y. I was 16 years old, had moved out of my home, and was finan­cial­ly on my own. The senior wait­ress­es in this clas­sic Greek-owned din­er schooled me fast. They explained that my best route to max­i­mum cash was the week­end grave­yard shift. Peo­ple are hun­gry and drunk after the bars close, and the tips are great,” one said.

That first wait­ress­ing job would be short-lived, because I didn’t heed a cru­cial warn­ing. Watch out for Chris­tos, a hot-head­ed cook and rel­a­tive of the own­er. The night I phys­i­cal­ly rebuffed his obnox­ious and force­ful grop­ing, it took all the bus­boys hold­ing him back as he waved a cleaver at me, red-faced and scream­ing in Greek that he was going to kill me. The oth­er wait­ress held the door open as I fled to my car and sped off with­out even get­ting my last pay­check. I was trembling.

Although there were plen­ty of oth­er inci­dents in between, the next time I found myself that shak­en by a sex­u­al assault threat, I was 33 and in a Man­hat­tan cab with a high-up offi­cial in the nation­al AFL-CIO. He had struc­tur­al pow­er over me, as well as my pay­check and the cam­paign I was run­ning. He was near­ly twice my age and size. After offer­ing to give me a lift in the cab so I could avoid the pelt­ing rain walk­ing to the sub­way, he quick­ly slid all the way over to my side, pinned me to the door, grabbed me with both arms and began forcibly kiss­ing me on the lips. After a deter­mined push, and before get­ting the dri­ver to stop and let me out, I told the AFL-CIO offi­cial that if he ever did it again I’d call his wife in a nanosecond.

These two exam­ples under­score that behind today’s harass­ment head­lines is a deep­er cri­sis: per­ni­cious sex­ism, misog­y­ny and con­tempt for women. Whether in in our move­ment or not, seri­ous sex­u­al harass­ment isn’t real­ly about sex. It’s about a dis­re­gard for women, and it shows itself numer­ous ways.

For the #MeToo moment to become a mean­ing­ful move­ment, it has to focus on actu­al gen­der equal­i­ty. Lewd sto­ries about this or that man’s behav­ior might make com­pelling read­ing, but they side­track the real cri­sis — and they are being eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed to dis­tract us from the solu­tions women des­per­ate­ly need. Until we effec­tive­ly chal­lenge the ide­o­log­i­cal under­pin­nings beneath social poli­cies that hem women in at every turn in this coun­try, we won’t get at the root cause of the harass­ment. This requires exam­in­ing the total deval­u­a­tion of women’s work,” includ­ing rais­ing and edu­cat­ing chil­dren, run­ning a home and car­ing for the elder­ly and the sick.

It’s time to dust off the doc­u­ments from the near­ly 50-year-old Wages for House­work Cam­paign. The union move­ment must step in now and con­nect the dots to real solu­tions, such as income sup­ports like uni­ver­sal high-qual­i­ty child­care, free health­care, free uni­ver­si­ty and paid mater­ni­ty and pater­ni­ty leave. We need social poli­cies that allow women to be mean­ing­ful par­tic­i­pants in the labor force — more of a norm in West­ern Europe where union­iza­tion rates are high.

Sex­ist thought is hold­ing our move­ment back

Sex­ist male lead­er­ship inside the labor move­ment is a bar­ri­er to get­ting at these very solu­tions. This asser­tion is sure to gen­er­ate a round of, She shouldn’t write that, the boss­es will use it against us.” Let’s clear that bull­shit out of the way: We aren’t los­ing union­iza­tion elec­tions, strikes and union den­si­ty because of truth-telling about some men in lead­er­ship who should be forced to spend out their years clean­ing toi­lets in a shel­ter for bat­tered women. And besides, we all know the boss­es are far, far worse — and have struc­tur­al pow­er over tens of mil­lions of women in the Unit­ed States and beyond.

Some of the sex­u­al harassers who see women as their play­things are men on our side” with deci­sion-mak­ing roles in unions. This mind­set rejects real orga­niz­ing, instead embrac­ing shal­low mobi­liz­ing and advo­ca­cy. It rejects the pos­si­bil­i­ty that a future labor move­ment led by women in the ser­vice econ­o­my can be as pow­er­ful as the one led by men in the last cen­tu­ry who could shut down machines. Fac­to­ries, where mate­r­i­al goods are pro­duced by blue col­lar men are fetishized. Yet, today’s fac­to­ries — the schools, uni­ver­si­ties, nurs­ing homes and hos­pi­tals where large num­bers of work­ers reg­u­lar­ly toil side by side — are dis­re­gard­ed, even though they are the key to most local economies. Edu­ca­tors and health­care work­ers who build, devel­op and repair humans’ minds and bod­ies are con­sid­ered white and pink col­lar. This work­force is deemed less valu­able to the labor move­ment, because the labor it per­forms is con­sid­ered women’s work.

While pre­sent­ing on big health­care cam­paign wins at con­fer­ences, I’ve had men who iden­ti­fy as left­ists repeat­ed­ly drill me with skep­ti­cal ques­tions such as, We thought all nurs­es saw them­selves as pro­fes­sion­als; you’re say­ing they can have class sol­i­dar­i­ty?” I won­der if these left­ists missed which work­ers got behind the Bernie Sanders cam­paign first and most aggres­sive­ly. I’ve hard­ly ever met a nurse who didn’t believe health­care is a right that every­one deserves, regard­less of abil­i­ty to pay.

When I began nego­ti­at­ing hos­pi­tal-work­er con­tracts, which often includ­ed the nurs­es, I rou­tine­ly had men in the move­ment say things like, It’s great you love work­ing with nurs­es. They are such a pain in the ass at the bar­gain­ing table.” These deroga­to­ry com­ments came from men who can’t stand empow­ered women who actu­al­ly might have an opin­ion, let alone good ideas, about what’s in the final con­tract set­tle­ment. Many hold a relat­ed but dis­tinct assump­tion: that the so-called pri­vate sec­tor is more man­ly — and there­fore, impor­tant — than the so-called pub­lic sec­tor, which is major­i­ty-women. This belief also con­tributes to the deval­u­a­tion of fem­i­nized labor.

Cap­i­tal­ism is one eco­nom­ic sys­tem, peri­od. The fic­tion of these seem­ing­ly dis­tinct sec­tors is pri­mar­i­ly a strat­e­gy to allow cor­po­ra­tions to feed off the trough of tax-pay­er mon­ey and pre­tend they don’t. This mas­ter lie enables aus­ter­i­ty, which is turn­ing into a tsuna­mi post-tax bill. And yet white, male, high­ly edu­cat­ed labor strate­gists rou­tine­ly say that we need total­ly dif­fer­ent strate­gies for the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors. Hogwash.

This deeply incul­cat­ed sex­ist thought — con­scious or not — is hold­ing back our move­ment and con­tribut­ing to the absurd notion that unions are a thing of the past. These themes are dis­cussed in my book No Short­cuts, Orga­niz­ing for Pow­er in the New Gild­ed Age (Oxford, 2016).

The union move­ment has increased the num­ber of women and peo­ple of col­or in pub­licly vis­i­ble lead­er­ship posi­tions. But the labor movement’s research and strat­e­gy back­rooms are still dom­i­nat­ed by white men who prop­a­gate the idea that orga­niz­ing once worked, yet not any­more. This asser­tion is pre­sent­ed as fact rather than what it is: a struc­tural­ist argu­ment. The ero­sion of labor law, relo­ca­tion of fac­to­ries to regions with few or no unions, and automa­tion are the com­mon rea­sons put forth. The argu­ment omits the dev­as­tat­ing fail­ure of busi­ness union­ism, and its suc­ces­sor — the mobi­liz­ing approach, where deci­sion-mak­ing is left in the hands of most­ly white male strate­gists while telegenic women of col­or with good sto­ries” are trot­ted out as props by com­mu­ni­ca­tions staffers.

If you think these men are smarter than the mil­lions of women of col­or who dom­i­nate today’s work­force, then an orga­niz­ing approach — which rests the agency for change in the hands of women — is def­i­nite­ly not your pre­ferred choice. Mobi­liz­ing, or worse, advo­ca­cy, obscures the core ques­tion of agency: Whose is cen­tral to the strat­e­gy war room and future move­ment? As for loud lib­er­al voic­es — union and nonunion — that declare unions as a thing of the past, the forth­com­ing SCO­TUS rul­ing on NLRB v Mur­phy Oil will prove most of the nonunion inno­va­tions” moot. Mur­phy Oil is a com­pli­cat­ed legal case that boils down to remov­ing what are called the Sec­tion 7 pro­tec­tions under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, and pre­vent­ing class action lawsuits.

Mur­phy Oil blows a hole through the legal safe­guards that non-union work­ers have enjoyed for decades, evis­cer­at­ing much of the tac­ti­cal reper­toire of so-called Alt Labor, such as class-action wage-theft cas­es, and work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests called by nonunion com­mu­ni­ty groups in front of their work­places. The tim­ing is hor­rif­ic and uncan­ny: As women are final­ly find­ing their voic­es about sex­u­al harass­ment at work, most­ly in nonunion work­places (as the major­i­ty are), Mur­phy Oil will pre­vent class action sex­u­al harass­ment lawsuits.

Unions can’t win with­out reck­on­ing with sex­ism and racism

The cen­tral les­son the labor move­ment should take from the #MeToo move­ment is that now is the time to reverse the deeply held notion that women, espe­cial­ly women of col­or, can’t build a pow­er­ful labor move­ment. Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca and the rightwing are out to destroy unions, in part, so that they can dec­i­mate the few pub­lic ser­vices that do serve work­ing-class fam­i­lies, includ­ing the Children’s Health Insur­ance Pro­gram (CHIP), Med­ic­aid, Medicare, Social Secu­ri­ty and pub­lic schools. Move­ments won these pro­grams when unions were much stronger. It makes sense that unions, and the women’s move­ment, should throw down hard­est to defend and grow these sec­tors, large­ly made up of women, most­ly women of col­or, who are bril­liant strate­gists and fighters.

The labor move­ment should also dis­pense of the belief that orga­niz­ing and strikes can’t work. It’s self-defeat­ing. Unions led by Chica­go teach­ers and Philadel­phia and Boston nurs­es, to name a few, prove this notion wrong. The grow­ing eco­nom­ic sec­tors of edu­ca­tion and health­care are key. These work­ers have struc­tur­al pow­er and extra­or­di­nary social pow­er. Each work­er can bring along hun­dreds more in their communities.

Anoth­er key les­son for labor is to start tak­ing smart risks, such as chal­leng­ing the inept lead­er­ship in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty by run­ning its own pro-union rank-and-file sis­ters in pri­maries against the pro-cor­po­rate Democ­rats in safe Demo­c­ra­t­ic seats, a tar­get-rich envi­ron­ment. As obvi­ous as it might sound, this strat­e­gy is heresy in the labor move­ment. Women who marched last Jan­u­ary should demand that gen­der-focused polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees, such as EMILY’s list, use sup­port for union­iza­tion as a lit­mus test for whether politi­cians run­ning for office will get their sup­port. No more faux fem­i­nist Sheryl Sand­berg types.

It’s time for unions to raise expec­ta­tions for real gen­der equal­i­ty, to chan­nel the new bat­tle cry to rid our­selves of today’s sex­u­al harassers into a move­ment for the gen­der jus­tice that women in Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries and much of West­ern Europe enjoy. To think of win­ning what has become almost nor­mal gains in many coun­tries — year-long paid mater­ni­ty and pater­ni­ty leave, free child­care, health­care and uni­ver­si­ties, six weeks’ annu­al paid vaca­tion — is not pie-in-the-sky. To fight for it, peo­ple have to be able to imag­ine it.

The per­cent­age of work­ers cov­ered by union-nego­ti­at­ed col­lec­tive agree­ments in much of West­ern Europe, the coun­tries with ben­e­fits women in this coun­try des­per­ate­ly need, is between 80 per­cent and 98 per­cent of all work­ers. This com­pares to a pal­try 11.9 per­cent in the Unit­ed States, as of 2013. This is far beyond a phased-in raise to $15 and hour — still basi­cal­ly pover­ty, and a wage that most women with struc­tur­al pow­er in strate­gic sec­tors already earn.

Women can’t win with­out build­ing work­place power

There’s enough wealth in this coun­try to allow the rich to be rich and still erad­i­cate most bar­ri­ers to a gen­uine women’s lib­er­a­tion, which starts with eco­nom­ic jus­tice in the work­place. Upper-class most­ly white women drowned out work­ing-class women, many of col­or, in the 1960s and 1970s. The results of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism are clear: Even though some women broke cor­po­rate and polit­i­cal glass ceil­ings and won a few favor­able laws, indi­vid­ual rights will not tru­ly empow­er women. Unions — warts and all — are cen­tral to a more equal soci­ety, because they bring struc­tur­al pow­er and col­lec­tive solu­tions to prob­lems that are fun­da­men­tal­ly soci­etal, not individual.

Women in the Unit­ed States are stuck with boss­es who abuse them, because to walk out could mean liv­ing in their cars or on the streets — or tak­ing two full­time jobs and nev­er spend­ing a minute with their kids. Sim­i­lar­ly, women are stuck in abu­sive mar­riages, because the deci­sion to stop the beat­ing means liv­ing on the streets. Euro­pean women from coun­tries where union con­tracts cov­er the vast major­i­ty of work­ers don’t, to the same extent, face the deci­sion of los­ing their husband’s health­care plan, or not hav­ing mon­ey to pay for child­care or so many of the chal­lenges faced by women here. This coun­try is seri­ous­ly bro­ken, and to fix it we must build the kind of pow­er that comes with high union­iza­tion rates, which trans­late into polit­i­cal — not just eco­nom­ic — power.

Nam­ing and sham­ing is not suf­fi­cient. Women need to trans­late the pas­sion of this moment into win­ning the solu­tion that will help end work­place harass­ment. A good union rad­i­cal­ly changes work­place cul­ture for the bet­ter. The entire con­cept of a human resources office changes when a union is present. For exam­ple, when enter­ing the human resources office, women aren’t alone: They’ve got their union stew­ard. Union con­tracts effec­tive­ly allow women to chal­lenge boss­es with­out being fired. Good unions do change work­place cul­ture on these and many issues. Why else would the men who con­trol cor­po­ra­tions, and now the fed­er­al and most state gov­ern­ments, spend lav­ish­ly on pro­fes­sion­al union busters and fight so damn hard to destroy unions?

It’s going to take a mas­sive expan­sion of unions again — like what hap­pened in the 1930s, the last time unions were declared dead — before we can trans­late #MeToo into a demand that rais­es all work­ers’ expec­ta­tions that this coun­try can be a far more equal soci­ety. If we com­mit to this goal, we can achieve it. This time, the peo­ple lead­ing the unions will be the same peo­ple who saved the nation from Roy Moore, because women of col­or are already at the cen­ter of the future labor force.

I went from sex­u­al harass­ment in male-heavy restau­rant kitchens to sex­u­al harass­ment as a rare woman allowed into the kitchen cab­i­net of many suc­cess­ful cam­paigns. Whether it is union lead­ers ignor­ing the expe­ri­ence and genius of work­ers in today’s strate­gic employ­ment sec­tors of edu­ca­tion and health­care, politi­cians fol­low­ing the cor­po­rate line or indi­vid­ual bad boss­es harass­ing their employ­ees, all of it comes down to a dis­re­spect and dis­re­gard for women, espe­cial­ly women of col­or. If we focus on the pow­er analy­sis, the answer is star­ing us in the face. There is no time to waste. Every­one has to be all-in for rebuild­ing unions.

Jane McAlevey is an orga­niz­er, author and schol­ar, and she’s cur­rent­ly writ­ing a book about unions slat­ed for release this fall from Ecco/​HarperCollins.
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