It’s HeartUnions from 10 to 16 February 2020. I was reminded of the week of activity, highlighting the work of unions, by a parcel from the TUC arriving at my union office announcing the focus this year is on sexual harassment.
It was accompanied by a letter from our co-ordinated industrial leadership, bringing together 48 unions and 5.5 million members, and declaring “a radical yet practical plan” to end sexual harassment.
Over 1/2 women and nearly 7/10 LGBT workers are sexually harassed in the workplace. Subjecting women to fear, shame, and discomfort in a workplace, street or union meeting reinforces a gendered division, reminding women that, despite having to work, they do not fully belong in the public sphere. It reinforces and perpetuates sexist assumptions and divisions. A radical and practical plan is certainly required.
My bundle included posters for workplaces and Protection from Sexual Harassment at Work booklets. The booklet included some good tips for formal grievances (always keep a record of all incidents!), a decent outline of the existing legislation relating to sexual harassment, advice to seek support from your union (or a Citizens’ Advice Bureau where you don’t have one) and an explanation of how Employment Tribunals worked.
I’m glad that individuals experiencing sexual harassment at work can access these basic guides on law and grievance procedure, but help for victims after the fact is not an adequate trade-union response to such a widespread problem.
Putting hope before experience, I signed up for the TUC conference call which would plan the campaign. During the call, Frances O’Grady explained that the TUC were relaunching a campaign to lobby the government for “legislation to force bosses into preventative steps such as mandatory training for all staff and bosses and setting out clear policies against harassment… This would shift the burden from individuals to employers, changing workplace cultures and stopping the problem once and for all.”
We shouldn’t be sniffy about legislative change. Steps which move the focus from a victim’s ability to bring a complaint after the fact to an employer’s responsibility to positively prevent harassment are welcome. Institutional culture can make a dent on levels of harassment and confidence in combatting abusive behaviour when it happens.
Nonetheless the TUC announcement, a year on from #MeToo, trails behind better examples not just in terms of understanding the politics of sexism but also in the understanding of the importance of collective action.
The strength of #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos were that they refused to see sexual harassment complaint by complaint, individual by individual, and instead saw structural oppression that needed to be met with mass action. What followed went beyond a Twitter storm and the court cases of some high-profile offenders.
For instance at Complutense University in Madrid , women hung accounts of sexual harassment on washing lines across campus to expose the culture at the university. Thet created a network of reps identified by violet badges.
McDonalds workers in the USA organised a multi-state strike against sexual harassment at work. Screen Actors Guild members called for Do Not Work Orders against abusive producers.
Sexual harassment is a pressing workplace issue in most industries. The TUC should be organising around it, not just lobbying. We should be building local and sectoral disputes around management who commit or condone harassment at work. That requires the day to day rebuilding union strength at workplace level.
Do Not Work orders and strikes only work where you have the membership for them to have an impact. We need to fight barriers to workers feeling secure in taking on their bosses for example, industries that run on personal patronage; zero hours contracts and immigration controls.
Of course, we cannot assume that union-workplaces where workers feel more confident to stand up management are free of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment at work does not come exclusively from bosses. It may come from workmates or even from within our unions.
We must confront sexism in our class and class organisations. Workers’ power can only be built by universalising class politics which breaks down divisions and hierarchies between workers. This can’t be fully achieved legalistically. We need to build a culture of honestly confronting sexism and educating and supporting each other.
We can’t assume this will spring organically from male dominated union structures. We need to democratise our unions and build women’s self organisation.
Building a militant working class women’s movement and a democratic, strong labour movement should be our radical and practical plan to combat sexual harassment.