Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace has become a top priority for employers and labor unions. Harassment in the workplace poses a serious threat to members' health, safety, work and community — and, ultimately, threatens the union as a whole. According to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, unions have an extremely important role to play in tackling workplace sexual harassment.
Union boards have an opportunity to adopt proactive union harassment policies aimed at effectively addressing sexual harassment.
Empowering Members to Speak Up
Most employees hesitate to file complaints about sexual harassment or discrimination. Members may worry about the consequences of raising sexual harassment complaints — or, for that matter, complaints about discrimination of any kind. They may fear losing their jobs or putting the jobs of coworkers in jeopardy. To support members following an incident, union leaders should provide an initial response to the member complaining of harassment. Throughout the process:
- Show respect, understanding and concern for members making sexual harassment complaints.
- Involve members making harassment complaints in resolving the issue so they can influence the outcome.
- When the perpetrator is a fellow member, the union should make clear that the member accused of harassment cannot retaliate or attempt to discredit the member who complained
Facilitating Sexual Harassment Complaints
One of the first steps unions can take to help members feel safe in their environment is to make sure that the union bargains for sexual harassment training and prevention practices when negotiating the constitution and collective bargaining agreements affecting members.
Members should also be assured that the union's agreements with managers and employers prohibits retaliation against the person making a sexual harassment complaint. Including provisions in the collective bargaining agreement that prohibit sexual harassment and retaliation in the workplace shows members that the union takes fighting sexual harassment in the workplace seriously. Generally, unions should adopt the following practices:
Focus on education. Train stewards in trauma-informed practices for handling harassment claims. Sexual harassment prevention and response training should include education on responses to traumatic events and best practices for integrating knowledge about trauma into policies and procedures.
Protect affected members. Shield members who file harassment claims from retaliation, both from their employer and fellow members in the union. Harassment may continue if those responsible are not held accountable for their conduct, and it may worsen with each complaint that is ignored or insufficiently addressed by union leaders.
- Show solidarity. The union should make clear to employers that it will stand by any person who reports harassment as soon as a claim is made, as well as provide support throughout the process.
Ultimately, unions are stronger when they recognize that sexual harassment is a workers' rights issue. Ineffectively addressing sexual harassment sends the message that the union cannot — or will not — fight to provide members with a safe and equal workplace. This weakens organized labor, and it discourages workers from joining and becoming active in a union. Ensure your organization's union harassment policies and procedures protect all of your members.
Julia Passwater is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Passwater earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Indiana University Bloomington, and she earned a Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. After earning her law degree, Passwater spent over a decade enforcing federal employment laws for the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Today, Passwater writes about topics such as politics, government, employment law and work in the 21st century.