Chapter 17: Fighting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In late 2017, detailed allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s relentless sexual harassment and string of assaults first broke into the mainstream media. Courageous actresses took a stand against a powerful figure within a multi-billion dollar industry that normalizes sexism. This inspired women across the world to speak out and sparked a new phase of the growing women’s revolt in the U.S.

Even while #MeToo developed as a primarily internet-driven mass discussion, its power has rocked the globe. It exposes both that violence and harassment against women remains pandemic, and also that there’s an increased confidence to fight it. A whole series of prominent men in many fields have been exposed, and many forced to resign.

Yet the most notorious sexual predator in the U.S. still sits in the White House. From glorifying sexual assault to his unapologetic misogynist attitudes, Trump is a caricature of the mistreatment and injustice that women have experienced our whole lives.

Building a Movement Against Workplace Harassment

In the face of a seemingly endless flood of accusations, women worldwide are talking to their friends, families, and co-workers about their own experiences. The #MeToo collective uprising has already had a profound impact on society and politics, bringing front and center the need to stop sexual harassment and violence against women.

Fighting workplace harassment became the focus of #MeToo. As high-profile case after high-profile case resulted in men being forced out of power, a glaring question opened up: What about the tens of millions of women whose bosses and harassers are not famous people? What are we to do?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread, underreported, and, in too many cases, results in retaliation against the victim. Women who come forward against harassment on the job are told to look to Human Resources or other internal company routes.Yet HR departments are a part of management whose primary focus is defending the company or firm against lawsuits or bad publicity. They will always seek to sweep things under the table and treat each incident as if it was not part of a pattern. The choice for many women boils down to losing their jobs or enduring abuse.

According to a September 2017 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, more than 60 million American workers have mandatory arbitration clauses in their employment contracts. This means that, as part of accepting employment, you are forced to accept that if you face discrimination or harassment on the job, this will be brought to arbitration, not to court, and you have to accept the outcome with no legal recourse. The advantage to employers is lower litigation costs and keeping issues out of the public eye. But this system which protects the employer clearly does not protect women, LGBTQ people, people of color, or workers generally.

If you don’t have a mandatory arbitration clause in your employment contract you can report your complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC may be better than nothing, but even when an EEOC case leads to a court case there is no guarantee of justice. The court system has systematically failed women. The vast majority of workplace discrimination lawsuits – which includes sexual harassment – are dismissed by the courts. In fact, a study from the University of Cincinnati reported that only 4% of these suits result in granting damages to the victim. Even when workers win damages from their employers, settlements can stipulate that victims give up their jobs, which are often the best jobs that those individuals can get – that’s what made it worth it to undergo the grueling process of making a complaint and seeing it through in court in the first place.

Winning Real Reforms

While legal defense funds – like Time’s Up, an initiative from women in Hollywood which explicitly extends support to working-class women – will certainly be helpful to survivors, this is just a drop in the ocean.

The existing infrastructure for women to seek justice is fundamentally stacked against women who do speak out. A new system needs to be set up where every workplace has a complaints officer, democratically elected by the workforce, and federally protected from employer retaliation. The legal framework itself also needs to be radically overhauled. This includes ending the clauses in employee contracts that mandate company-run arbitration for complaints.

Of course, enacting change at the federal level when the political system is dominated by the anti-women Republican Party and the corporate-dominated Democrats may seem far-fetched. But reform can also be pushed for at the state and local levels, as the movement for a $15 minimum wage did. Unions can also demand elected complaints officers in their contract negotiations.

The only way to win and maintain serious reforms is a mass campaign and a mobilized, active workforce refusing to return to the past. In 1971, when the labor movement was far stronger, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was set up which saved thousands of workers’ lives. Today, corporate America will ferociously resist any incursion on their dominance in the workplace. Reform will require a massive push from below.

The Role of Solidarity

Sexual harassment and abuse is an expression of power. An isolated worker, fighting a predator on the job, even one who is not a boss, faces long odds to stopping the abuse and getting justice. As Bonnie Castillo, a leader of National Nurses United (NNU) writes:

“[T]he legal avenue is usually a dead end for a nurse in a non-union setting. Without the protection of a union the nurse is identified as disloyal and a troublemaker. Outside the circle of light cast by #MeToo in the entertainment industry and the political arena, sexual harassment will likely continue in the non-union workplace.”

Fundamentally, overcoming the deeply entrenched sexism that keeps victims isolated and powerless will take the collective action of a united workforce up to and including strike action particularly in toxic environments where management refuses to act despite the issues being forcefully brought to their attention. A workforce where harassment is tolerated will be divided and weakened. A workforce where men and women workers stand in solidarity with with all who have faced harassment will be far more united and capable of fighting on all fronts.

UNITE-HERE, the union for hotel workers, won important victories in Chicago and Seattle by requiring hotel management to provide housekeeping workers with panic buttons.

The union movement as a whole has the potential to take a lead in the #MeToo fight and galvanize millions of working-class women, whether or not they’re in unions. Unions could be calling mass meetings and offering help as organizing centers for a movement against employers who are complicit in workplace sexual harassment.

Collective Action In Our Workplaces

We can take inspiration from the struggles of working women in the past. In the 1830s in Lowell, Massachusetts, teenage girls working in textile mills, faced with pay cuts as well as sexual harassment and assault on the job, went on strike. This was the first female-led labor struggle in American history, long before women even had the right to vote.

In the last few months, workers at some of the largest global corporations have shown the way forward for bringing #MeToo into our workplaces and the potential for building class-based struggles against sexism. In September 2018, McDonald’s workers carried out the first-ever nationwide strike against sexual harassment on the job in ten cities across the U.S. including Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., and New Orleans. The McDonald’s workers had excellent demands:

  • Enforce the existing zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment;
  • Hold mandatory anti-harassment trainings for managers and employees;
  • Create a safe system for responding to complaints;
  • Form of a committee (including restaurant workers) to address sexual harassment.

In part inspired by that strike action, in November 2018 Google workers staged an international walkout against sexual harassment, with 20,000 participating (see box). They also had outstanding demands including:

  • An end to forced arbitration on complaints;
  • A transparent process for reporting sexual misconduct;
  • The right for every employee to bring a third party representative of their choosing when filing a harassment claim;
  • For management to release pay data broken down by gender and ethnicity.

The final demand shows that not only are Google workers taking aim at sexual harassment in the workplace, but they’re pointing toward equal pay for equal work and an end to the gender and racial pay gap.

A notable feature of the Google employee walkout was the number of men who walked off the job to fight sexual harassment. This is a reflection of the overall shift in consciousness, especially among young people. People of all genders, in growing numbers, reject sexism and want to join the broader fight against the bosses. The walkout of Google workers closed or partially closed 40 offices around the world, breaking open a new stage of the fight against sexual harassment as well as representing the first concrete steps toward workplace self-organization among tech workers.

In late October 2018, city employees in Glasgow, Scotland — working in homecare, schools, child care, and cleaning and catering services — carried out the largest strike action for equal pay in British history. Women made up 90% of the strikers, which reached 10,000 workers on the first day and inspired mass participation in their communities. Pickets were set up in front of hundreds of schools and municipal buildings, which helped gain even more mass support and solidarity. Following this, the mostly male sanitation workers carried out a solidarity strike action which completely shut down sanitation services in Glasgow. Having a male-dominated workforce willing to stand in solidarity with women workers fighting for equal pay was a tremendous boost to the strike and its political impact.

These workers have shown how the fight against harassment can be brought to the workplace to take on the everyday sexism that we face. A mass movement that takes to the streets and builds effective organization in the workplaces, where working people have enormous potential social power if they take collective action, can disrupt the status quo and challenge abusive bosses and systemic inequality. At the end of the day it’s the whole system of legalized exploitation and abuse called capitalism that needs to be brought to an end.

20,000 Walk Out at Google Against Sexual Harassment

Author: A Bay Area Google Employee

The strike leaders and the worker we picked to MC arrived first at Harry Bridges plaza across from the iconic San Francisco Ferry Building. It was pretty empty. For almost everyone at Google, this was their first strike. No one knew if we were all going to get fired. The farthest office was a 10-minute walk to the plaza, so the crowd gathered slowly at first. One office after another began crossing the streets and arriving. We began to think we might get a hundred or more workers to show up, but soon the plaza was completely filled with over a thousand Google workers.

In a new manifestation of the #MeToo movement, Google offices worldwide went out on a rolling strike Thursday, November 1 at 11:10am locally. From Singapore to Dublin and San Francisco, some 20,000 Google workers attended strike rallies protesting sexual harassment. We closed down, or partially closed down, 50 offices around the globe. It was impressive and inspiring to see so many Googlers around the globe participate in this action, despite not knowing how Google would respond, or if the bosses would retaliate.

The leaders in San Francisco were six women, mostly women of color, and two men. Every woman had a story of sexual harassment or assault from men at Google, and in most cases the harasser was still employed at Google. Many assaulters were promoted or retired with a fat severance deal.

The internal Google-workers-only website that national organizers set up to encourage workers to strike was visited by 35,000 out of 94,000 Google full-time employees. Locally, while putting fliers up in my office, one woman walked up to me and asked to help. So off we went, office-to-office, putting up fliers in the other Google workplaces in downtown San Francisco.

The strike rally kicked off at about 11:30 am. Our MC spoke about the experience she has had as a woman of color, and the culture of cover-ups for sexual harassment and assault that are unfortunately all too common in the workplace. Another worker got up and explained that this plaza was the place where the 1934 San Francisco longshoremen-led general strike was launched. A woman worker then read out four stories of different women who were sexually harassed while working at Google. Each woman had attempted to pursue a case against their assailant, and each was not taken seriously by HR and Google management. Again in the majority of these cases, the assailants are still employed by Google.

The rally, inclusive of both women and men, ended after the speeches, with most everyone going back to work. But everyone was changed by this experience. Many co-workers approached me to thank me for my role in the strike. There is a mood of elation that we made a stand, that we united, and that we went on our first ever strike.

Discussions have now been pushed forward into issues like: “what do we do next? How do we win our demands? What will management do?” A small number of workers are opening the conversation about forming a union.

I think this is just the start of Google workers beginning to organize – and what an incredible beginning.