[EQUAL TIMES] Unions must do more to fight gender-based violence in their own ranks

SOURCE: EQUAL TIMES (https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-must-do-more-to-fight?lang=en#.Wi1CDlVRf9t)
By Emily Paulin
1 December 2017

Sexual harassment is an act of violence inflicted upon a person based on their gender or sex. It takes place at or around work, and it has been the subject of much discussion recently, especially given the impact of the #MeToo campaign on social media.

In the last few months, the North American media has been rocked by a steady stream of revelations that the world of work is not a safe place for women. But North American women already knew this, as do women across Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and theMiddle East.

These ground-breaking revelations about esteemed male figures preying on their female, and occasionally male, co-workers come at an ironic moment, as the UN’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence takes place between 25 November and 10 December.

It has also forced many to rethink why society heaps accolades upon people who clearly have no respect for half the world’s population.

In 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will review gender-based violence in the world of work and activists are pushing for the creation of a new convention to address an issue that affects millions of working people across the globe.

Unions and broader coalitions are launching major campaigns to raise awareness about the gender-based violence their members experience; these campaigns are essential and timely.

GBV in unions

However, there is one area to which campaigners have not yet brought voice and light, and that is for the workers within unions and campaigning organisations themselves.

This is a profoundly difficult area for those of us involved in this work to speak about. My fingers tremble even now, as I type the fourth draft of this blog. We dedicate our lives to this work because we believe in its greater purpose. We see that by uniting people around issues of inequality, respect and justice we can make this world a better place. These are the tenets that drive the brilliant women I know working in trade unions across the globe.

And yet, there is not one region where the issue of sexism, sexual harassment or predatory behaviour has not had an adverse effect on women in trade unions.

Union sisters in one Latin American country have been subject to near daily torment by senior figures, but are so dedicated to their mission to organise marginalised people that they are forced to use ‘the whisper’ network to protect each other.

A sister in one union based in Europe filed a claim against a colleague who consistently made lewd comments to her and finally, much to her deep embarrassment, did so in front of a member. All she could get from her organisation was a letter sent to staff, outlining in general terms that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. She had to continue working with this person until she finally left the organisation.
Union staff and leaders across the United States have been subjected to the same level of sexual harassment as outlined in the stories making headlines. But even the worst cases are not made public.

One African female union leader confined in me about how difficult it is for her to organise women into the union and leadership because people in their community consider unions as hunting grounds for men to prey upon female members. The women who have risen to leadership within this union must endure the harassment and the gossip.

Our movement lost another great organiser in the Arab-speaking region, who could no longer struggle against the constant daily sexism within her union, so she left the movement all together.

It saddens me to think of all the great leaders we may have lost. All the campaigns that will never be fought because of the women who leave unions. All the workers that never found their voice within their union because the best person to engage them had been pushed out due to an assault rendered ‘her fault’.

Rallying cry

Women trade unionists endure the same conditions as women workers and leaders across all forms of employment. Therefore, the stories of women’s sexual harassment within trade unions should be a rallying cry for all those who care for the future of progressive movements.

We are only as good as the organisations we build and maintain. If we allow ourselves to exert the same kind of power dynamics that we fight so tirelessly against when it comes to employers, then we are no better than they are.

If we subject our female leaders and staff to the stress and violence of sexual harassment, then we have lost sight of our true path. How can we call ourselves a democratic movement striving for equality?

If we allow this to continue, we are not democratic, we are oppressive. Indeed, we fail our members and all working people if we perpetuate the marginalisation of people based on gender.

I call on all unions, be they male or female dominant or equal in numbers, to take a long hard look at how we perpetuate oppression within our own structures. If we do not create space for this introspection, we are no better than the perpetrators of oppression. If we do not give voice to those who have experienced gender-based violence through their union, or at their job in a union, we are suppressors of our own power. Worse still, we cannot lead by example.

Our movement can take practical steps to build the future we envision, starting with ourselves. To promote a harassment-free environment within the union, we can:
1. First, establish an internal (union) anti-harassment policy, code of conduct and equality statement to provide a harassment-free union environment 
a. Include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment language in the
local bylaws 
2. Train union leaders and stewards to recognise and challenge harassment 
a. If individuals see inappropriate behaviour they must be empowered by the organisation to deal with it head on, especially in the union environment, for instance during union meetings 
3. Appoint someone at the executive to deal with harassment issues 
4. Write articles for your website or newsletter about harassment, members’ rights, and the ways to stop or prevent harassment 
5. Survey members about their experiences with harassment and discrimination 
6. Build alliances with local community groups fighting discrimination and violence 
a. Invite speakers to union events, sponsor one of their community events or support joint action.

The union movement’s actions on harassment send an important message. Members can be reluctant to come forward with concerns about harassment.

Members who trust the union to challenge harassment and advocate for a harassment-free workplace, are more likely to come forward. It is our duty to enable them to do so.