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Misrepresented: women fight harassment and the union boys' club.

When the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission sued Mitsubishi in April in a historic class-action suit claiming that as many as 500 women workers had suffered sexual harassment, the company had egg on its face, but so did the union.

"It seems like the numbers are a lot higher than what we were aware of," confessed Donald Shelby, vice president of the United Auto Workers Local 2488. Shelby also said that he thought Mitsubishi had tried to improve the workplace for women in the last year.

But the seriousness of the allegations against Mitsubishi belie that claim. The EEOC charged that harassment at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois, was "standard operating procedure." According to the EEOC, women workers complained of groping, crude graffiti, and derogatory epithets. Male supervisors and line workers rubbed their genitals against female workers, and masturbated while staring at the women working beside them, the EEOC said. The EEOC report also alleges that managers coerced some women into performing sex acts.

For many working women, especially those employed in blue-collar jobs traditionally held by men, the allegations come as no surprise. Sexual harassment is a fact of life for them. And while ultimately it is the employer's responsibility to provide a harassment-free workplace, it is also the obligation of the union to represent all workers fairly and to ensure that management enforces the contract.

The bargaining agreement between Mitsubishi and the United Auto Workers Local 2488 included an anti-discrimination clause opposing "any type of harassment or discrimination." But, says Cynthia Pierre, deputy director of the EEOC's regional office in Chicago, the union did not ensure that the company enforced this clause. "The union really did not help alleviate women's mistreatment," Pierre says.

Sexual-harassment problems persist for union women in part because the majority of union officials are male. While women compose a larger percentage of the unionized work force than ever before in the United States--37 percent--they make up only about 8 percent of elected and appointed union officials.

And in many blue-collar jobs, women are still dramatically underrepresented. Only 2.3 percent of construction workers are women, for example. Only 8.9 percent of precision production workers and 3.6 percent of mineworkers are female.

"At a work site, we're usually a minority of one," says Mary Baird, a founding member of Cleveland's Hard Hatted Women, a group of female construction workers. As one tradeswoman explains, "Being the only woman on a construction site [means] having no one to relate to, not having rest-room facilities, having to speak up for myself on issues that I feel are unfair practices at work, and not having any support."

To fight isolation, some women form workplace committees. The Women's Action Group is a committee in a building-trades local at a large electronics company in Massachusetts. The committee came together to support three women who had experienced sexual harassment from coworkers.

"In each case, the women were advancing to higher levels than the men approved of, in mostly male job areas," says Jean Alonso, a leader of the committee. "The attacks were attempts to intimidate the women and to force them to give up their positions. The attacks were gross in nature--smearing of faces, taunting about menstrual blood, and men exposing themselves. Men even formed a `women-hater's club.' "

Many women recognize that sexual harassment is designed to let them know that they are not wanted at the work site. The isolation that blue-collar women experience can become intense. Tradeswomen face hostility from both supervisors and co-workers.

Jane (who asks that her last name not be used) works in an isolated area at the American Axle plant in Detroit. She's a member of the United Auto Workers Local 235. She says she experiences harassment nearly every day of her working life. She works with her back to the aisle. Until recently, male co-workers constantly stared at her rear end. She put up with this situation for months before she complained to her supervisor and her union representative. Within hours, the company installed sheet metal behind Jane, blocking her co-workers' view. A week later, a drawing of a rear end appeared on the sheet metal. Then someone left dirty hand prints on the picture, positioned so they appeared to be grabbing at the buttocks.

Melanie Zimmer works as an airplane mechanic for Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis. When she started work in the mid-1980s, she says, "everywhere you looked there were sexually suggestive pictures of women on the tool boxes, on the walls, hand-drawn on lunchroom tables."

For years, blue-collar women have said such pin-ups create a hostile atmosphere. In 1991, the courts finally agreed. A federal judge in Jacksonville, Florida, issued an injunction against Jacksonville Shipyards, Inc., and declared that "the posting of calendars and posters with nude or scantily clad women is a form of sexual harassment forbidden by Title VII of the 1964 and 1991 Civil Rights Act." Nevertheless, pornography remains a part of the shop floor. Often both union representatives and management see the pictures as "no big deal."

Many male unionists have a difficult time recognizing harassment. During a strike of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, for example, six union representatives--four men and two women--agreed to meet to discuss strategy. The male representatives selected what they referred to as their usual site and gave out directions. When the women got there, they discovered that the meeting place was a strip bar.

"There are women officers in this local who never objected to meeting in this strip bar in the past," said one of the female representatives. "Why? I think it is because of intimidation."

Rather than being an ally for women workers, the union itself can become a harasser. Linda Layton, of the International Association of Machinists District 143, tells of her experience as a ticket agent for an airline in Southern California.

"the union representative was sexually harassing female agents," she says. "In his locker were job applications which contained home addresses and phone numbers. Comments such as `beautiful eyes' and `nice legs' were written in the margins. One female agent who complained of harassment was told by management to avoid the steward. She transferred out of the station."

The women filed charges against the steward with the Machinists. They accused him of conduct unbecoming a union representative. A committee in the union local found him guilty and recommended a three-year suspension from office. However, the steward appealed to the next-highest union body. That group voted to amend the punishment. Rather than suspend the steward from office, they simply reprimanded him. He now holds three union positions, Layton says.

Unfortunately, this story is not unique. When union officials are themselves the harassers, it is extremely difficult for women union members to convince other union officials, most of whom are men, that their buddy did something wrong.

One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, was harassed for almost a year by a member of her local's grievance committee.

The harassment was verbal: The union official repeatedly made remarks implying that the victim, because she was a woman, could not do her job. "The union didn't take the harassment seriously," she says. "When I went to the union to say I was being harassed and I wanted something done, they said they could sit down with both of us and mediate. But really, they pooh-poohed it."

The union was so indifferent to her situation that it even allowed the harasser, as a member of the grievance committee, to evaluate her grievance against him. "They told me if I was going to file a grievance, the harasser would judge its validity," she says.

She then complained to her supervisor and contacted her own attorney. Meanwhile, union officials continued to harass her.

"They named me a whore, a bitch, a crazy woman," she recalls. "Worst of all, they hired an attorney for the harasser and gave him full counsel. They denied me due process."

Ultimately, the harasser received a slap on the wrist. He was transferred to another work site, but continues to sit on the local's grievance committee. To the victim, who remains with the same employer, "this means that I cannot expect fair treatment from the grievance committee. I still don't feel comfortable asking the union for help."

Situations like those described above make women hesitate to approach the union for help with sexual-harassment problems. Some union leaders like it this way. They refuse to accept any responsibility for harassment problems and may do their best to ignore sex discrimination. They believe that stopping sexual harassment is the employer's responsibility, and tell members to report problem directly to management. In a unionized workplace, this strategy seems peculiar at best and divisive at worst. Workers who have a problem with overtime pay or line speed, for example, don't speak directly to their supervisors. They speak to their union representative, who then approaches management through official channels.

Asking women to approach management directly when they have a sexual-harassment problem, especially if that problem is with a co-worker, places women in the position of company stooge or union traitor. When Northwest Airlines mechanic Melanie Zimmer was unable to get help from her union, the Machinists District 143, she went to management and asked that they remove pornography from the workplace. Managers then went to Zimmer's co-workers and told them to tear down their pictures, not because harassment is against the law, but because "Melanie wanted them to." Pornography became "Melanie's problem," Zimmer explains. She was seen as the one who got co-workers in trouble, and her isolation increased.

Unions that refuse to address co-worker harassment find themselves facing increased problems. Instead of taking the initiative against harassment and protecting workers' rights, they react to management decisions. They become involved in incidents of harassment only if the harasser is a union member. The union sometimes even files a grievance on behalf of the harasser, protesting discipline he may have received from management. The union thus becomes a champion of the harasser, while the female victim of harassment testifies against the union on behalf of the company. Many union members then turn against the woman.

Debra Darco, for example, is the only woman among the 400 workers at Wagner Mining and Construction Equipment in Oregon. There are several unions in her shop. She's a member of Boilermakers Local 72 and builds hydraulics. For years, she put up with explicit sexual remarks and repeated propositions from her co-workers. But one day something happened that she couldn't ignore.

A machinist, Charlie, exposed himself and masturbated in front of her. Darco tried to file a union grievance, but the Boilermakers told her that this was management's problem. "I turned Charlie in to the company," Darco says, "because I wanted to stand up for my rights."

The case came to arbitration when the Machinists Union filed a grievance for Charlie, protesting the discipline he received from the company. Darco testified against him and he was fired after twenty-two years on the job. Since then, the situation at work has become unbearable for Darco.

"No one will speak to me," she says. "I've been blackballed. It's all I can do to get through a day down there. I'm trying to survive and I don't know if I'm going to."

The only way to avoid situations like Darco's, says Peggy Nash, assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers, is for unions to confront co-worker harassment head-on.

"Even though this can seem to raise questions about choosing sides and breaking workers' solidarity, there can be no solidarity with sexist and racist behavior," she explains.

Unions need to take a stand, making it clear that sexual harassment is not permissible, whether it comes from management or from union members. The union should take it upon itself to implement policies, organize educational sessions, and distribute literature on the issue.

Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, promotes a "zero-tolerance" policy. "The time has come for zero tolerance of pin-ups, of racial slurs," he says. "Too often, racial slurs, whistles, and sexist comments are passed off by the harassers with the comment: `Can't they take a joke?' It's no joke; it's degrading and humiliating."

In order for any union to reach a goal of zero tolerance, it needs to be sure that the policies outlined in its literature, and negotiated in its contracts, are enforced by top union leadership, reinforced at the union local level, and implemented in every workplace. That means the unions should file grievances for victims of sexual harassment.

The United Auto Workers local at Mitsubishi has strong anti-harassment contract language, but since it is not enforced, it serves little purpose. The Canadian Auto Workers took a step toward enforcing zero tolerance when it established an extensive educational program, negotiating paid training on sexual-harassment issues for their members.

In the United States, no union has yet negotiated paid training for its members nationwide. However, some local unions have done so. The Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Local 2477 won sexual-harassment training for all hourly and salaried employees at a Conoco Oil refinery in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, the training came only after an incident of sexual harassment. Union members and supervisors were watching pornographic videos during work. Women employees objected and upper management wanted to fire everyone involved. The union stepped in and instead of defending harassing behavior, negotiated paid sexual-harassment education for all employees.

Other unions organize voluntary educational programs and encourage members to participate. The United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, the Teamsters, and others also sponsor conferences that include workshops on fighting sexual harassment on the job.

In 1994, I was hired to write a pamphlet for the Teamsters entitled "Sexual Harassment: It's Against the Law." As part of the Teamsters' human-rights campaign, the pamphlet, distributed to local leaders, clarified the definition of sexual harassment. Teamsters spokesperson Cynthia Kain explains, "Understanding the issue has been a big challenge. A lot of men were saying they don't understand what it is. They don't understand what they can and can't do."

But for unions to make great strides against sexual harassment, they must get more women into leadership positions. Some unions try to promote women's leadership by holding national women's conferences and organizing national women's committees. The Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW), with women making up 15 to 20 percent of its 100,000 members, established a women's advisory committee in 1994. Its mission, as stated in the constitution, is "to coordinate and provide information and resources to local unions and members, for the purposes of increasing the activity and participation of current women members, and to assist organizing new women members for our union." OCAW has also established a column devoted to women's issues in its monthly magazine, The Reporter.

The AFL-CIO likewise is reaching out to working women. The newly elected AFL-CIO leadership, headed by President John Sweeney, has appointed Karen Nussbaum, founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, to lead the federation's new working-women's department. President Sweeney said Nussbaum is charged "with developing a program that will inject the issues and concerns of working women into every nook and cranny of our movement and with making the labor movement a strong, activist voice for working women."

For women facing harassment on the job, that program cannot come soon enough.
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Author:Colatosti, Camille
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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