#MeToo has dominated headlines in recent months, shining a spotlight on boorish behavior in a variety of industries. Powerful and seemingly untouchable individuals have been brought down for their actions from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. The movement has also led to new voices championing for change, such as Aly Raisman’s heroic push to institute protections for women of all ages within the athletic community. Exposing sexual harassment in the workplace and punishing those who allow it has more significance than ever before. So the question remains, why is the media not taking the United Auto Workers, the SEIU, and the AFL-CIO to task for sexual harassment?
Unions issue countless statements decrying sexual misconduct in the workplace. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) even took a pledge to help eliminate violence and harassment against women on International Women’s Day. UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada released a statement assuring members that sexual misconduct is “a union issue.” Unfortunately, she did not say that it is a union issue because unions are overlooking bullying behavior.
Since 2014 the UAW has been attached to an ongoing, and growing, sexual misconduct lawsuit against Ford Motor Company. Over 50 women represented in a class action lawsuit have alleged decades of harassment within two different manufacturing plants. Many of the women have stated that the UAW is directly responsible for helping protect the harassers, including several instances of retaliation after lodging complaints against other male union members. Keith Hunt, the attorney representing the women, stated that for years the union has done little to support workers against sexual assault and has hypocritically chosen to support union bosses over actual victims.
How did the UAW respond to the suspension of the union plant chairman, Allen Millender, amidst these allegations? The union filed a grievance challenging the suspension, claiming the company could be wrong. Millender returned to work at the same plant not long after.
This was not a unique instance. Labor unions have a history of sexual assault within the ranks of their leadership. In November of 2017, Josh Eidelson published a report with Bloomberg Businessweek detailing the extent of sexual assault within the nation's two largest unions, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The disturbing report outlined the sexual misconduct of four senior SEIU staffers. Scott Courtney, an Executive Vice President, had a career filled with decades of misconduct, including dating subordinates and sexual harassment. His behavior was so severe that almost twenty years ago other employees presented their concerns about Courtney in writing to national leaders. However, the SEIU failed to conduct a proper investigation until 2017, and Courtney remained a crucial figure in the organization until last October.
Kendall Fells and Caleb Jennings, both key organizers for the union, also stepped down in October amidst the investigation into allegations of abusive behavior towards staff directed primarily at women.
The final senior staff member outed in the report was Chris Schwartz, who was suspended by the SEIU for just one week after finding “conclusive evidence of inappropriate behavior,” including ogling, sexual pressure, and disciplinary retaliation when sexual advances were denied. In 2010 Schwartz began working with the UAW, the same union connected to the class action lawsuit against Ford Motor Company. The UAW has stated that since he began working with them, Schwartz’s performance has been “exemplary.” That should be less than reassuring coming from an organization that has a track record of failing to protect its members from sexual misconduct.
Labor unions have power over millions of men and women whom they can intimidate or bully into submission. It is troubling that someone found to be a credible threat to workers’ safety was given a slap on the wrist similarly to Chris Schwartz, or ignored for almost two decades as was Scott Courtney, or protected in the case of Allen Millender. It was the victims of these men who were punished and put at risk of retaliation.
If these unions claim the purpose of their organization is to ensure the safety and rights of workers, they cannot protect individuals who commit sexual misconduct. As the #MeToo movement continues to expose the failures of numerous institutions to create an equal and safe working environment, there must be renewed efforts to hold all organizations involved responsible, including unions.
Jacob Reyes is a contributor to Economics21. Follow him on Twitter @Jacob_DReyes
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