Unions are one of the best ways for working women and men to end sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. That is because when working people come together in union, they negotiate a contract with just cause language, and a grievance and arbitration process for dealing with conflict with the employer.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, it has become painfully clear that management and people in positions of power have long been able to sexually harass and abuse women with little to no chance of facing any consequences. That’s why I was stunned to see a recent op-ed [Employers are the key to developing workplace harassment solutions] that suggested employers and management were key to solving the problem of sexual harassment.

As a long list of powerful men have been exposed – Harvey Weinstein, Steve Wynn, Larry Nassar, Mario Batali, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby and countless others – for sexual harassment and assault, it has become quite obvious that management would not solve this problem on its own. Not only has this movement illuminated the pervasiveness of the problem, it also showed that even women with relatively high levels of power were not immune to being harassed.

Sexual harassment has no place in our society. Yet far too many working people, especially women, dread going to work simply because they fear they may be harassed or worse. Many even fear retaliation for speaking up.

That’s why it’s important to have a union.

An employer who is behaving badly can easily go after a nonunion worker who tries to stand up for themselves, but a union contract helps protect union members from a retaliatory action. And if that employer attempts to go after a union member for speaking out on sexual harassment, they will have the full backing of their union.

Simply put, working women that are members of a union are in a stronger position to fight sexual harassment and protect workers who speak out. Here’s why:

  • Given that sexual harassment is an abuse of power, typically by a male manager against female subordinates, having a union and collective voice strengthens a worker’s ability to stop harassment.
  • Working people with a union feel safer bringing their concerns forward, because they have the power of a collective bargaining agreement and their union behind them. So harassment is more likely to get raised and addressed in a unionized workplace.
  • Collective bargaining agreements negotiated by workers and their unions with employers typically contain anti-discrimination language and language calling for dignity and respect at work. These provisions are enforced through a grievance and arbitration process that is typically faster and less expensive than outside legal proceedings.
  • Unions hold employers accountable for their responsibilities. Employers have a legal duty to prevent sexual harassment. When there is a union, the employer is far more likely to have an anti-harassment policy, and to train managers and others on the issue.
  • Unions advocate for policy solutions to stop harassment. As part of its “Hands Off Pants On” campaign, UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, won an ordinance in Chicago and other cities requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers so they can sound the alarm if they face harassment on the job from hotel guests or others.
  • The National Labor Relations Act protects workers engaged in collective action, regardless of whether they have a union or are trying to form one. For more information, visit nlrb.gov/rights-we-protect/protected-concerted-activity.

Working women who want to prevent harassment on the job will do better with a union. (They also are more likely to receive higher pay, better health care and pension benefits, and greater protections against unfair treatment on the job).

I know my union is dedicated to preventing sexual harassment and assault through education and the enforcement of strong contracts. When working people join together in union, we can have a voice on the job, stand together in solidarity and foster a workplace culture that supports all employees.

Taffy Womack is the President of AFSCME Local 704, representing state administrative-clerical employees.

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