Thanks to the collective outrage and solidarity expressed by millions in the #MeToo campaign, there has been an important shift in how sexual harassment and sexual assault are viewed and dealt with; at least when the perpetrator is famous. The new culture of intolerance around sexual misconduct has encouraged more and more women to come forward and expose their abusers. While we should claim a partial victory in the firings of rich and powerful predators in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, we’re not stopping there. The next step is to build a movement of millions in the streets, of collective action and strategic activism that takes aim at sexual harassment in every workplace. And we still need to take down Trump, the predator-in-chief himself.
January 20, the anniversary of the Women’s Marches, is set to be the largest day of protest nationwide in months and the first major day of protest since the #MeToo campaign exploded. Millions are rightfully disgusted with Trump’s reactionary politics, especially his racist attacks on immigrants as well as his history as a sexual predator. This year’s Women’s Marches can reignite the protest movement against Trump, a kickstart to bringing #MeToo into the streets.
A new, reinvigorated women’s movement – like the generalized movement against Trump – if it’s going to be able to win victories that affect the lives of working-class women, will need to develop its own organizations and strategies. Time’s Up, an initiative begun by women in Hollywood, has raised nearly $17 million for legal defense of victims of sexual harassment. This is a welcome development, as is the letter from the signers of Time’s Up, which extends solidarity to working class women, acknowledging the women farm workers who published their own letter in support of Hollywood actors in November.
While legal defense funds will certainly be helpful to survivors, the existing legal framework for taking your employer to court for sexual harassment is completely inadequate. 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.
Winning Real Reforms
Like other oppressed groups, the gains made by women historically have been won in the course of struggle, not as gifts from on high. The protections against sexual harassment provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as inadequate as they are, exist only because the organized women’s movement of the 1960s mounted a campaign that combined protests in the streets with more legalistic strategies. They demanded that the EEOC enforce discrimination law for sex, as it earlier pledged to do for race in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
The name and shame tactic employed in today’s era of #MeToo has been used effectively to elevate the issue of sexual harassment. Telling our stories is empowering in the solidarity it builds but it won’t be enough to shake the sexist political and social establishment down to its foundations. An organized movement is necessary to win reforms that can make it easier to report sexual harassment and to shield victims from retribution from employers.
We have argued that 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 also needs to be radically overhauled. This includes ending clauses in employee contracts that mandate company-run arbitration for complaints. These causes prevent more than half of American workers from being able to take harassment claims to court.
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 and active workforce refusing to return to the past. Forty-five years ago, 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 and reform will require a massive push from below. Ultimately, defeating sexism will require completely ending their power and control over the lives of tens of millions.
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:
“…the 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. There will be no #MeToo for non-union nurses who must face harassment alone in their workplaces.”
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 other fronts.
NNU has written powerfully about the critical role of unions in the fight against workplace sexual harassment. The union for hotel workers, UNITE-HERE 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.
In contrast to the NNU argument that the way forward for working-class women is through collective workplace action, there are many prominent women in business, government, journalism, and other institutions who are telling us we just need more women at the top.
Capitalism is a system that only obeys the logic of profit. When the choice is between rooting out sexual harassment at every level of an organization, no matter the cost to shareholders, and sweeping the problem under the rug we cannot trust any corporation to do the right thing, regardless of who the CEO is. Whether it’s Christy Walton who is a key decision maker at Walmart or Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who prohibited working from home, it’s clear that having women in positions of power is no guarantee of improvements for working women.
Given the openly anti-woman record of the Republican party, the party of accused sexual predators Trump and Roy Moore, the Democrats are positioning themselves to funnel energy to fight sexual harassment into the 2018 midterm elections..
The Democrats’ real record on sexual harassment is worthy of examination. They have protected many politicians with a long history of alleged and proven sexual misconduct, Bill Clinton being only the most famous. More importantly, what is the Democratic Party strategy for addressing workplace sexual harassment for janitors, hotel housekeepers, restaurant servers – all occupations in which women of color and immigrants are disproportionately represented – as well as millions of other working women?
Electing Democrats and electing women Democrats has been no guarantee of action on improving conditions for victims in the past. On housing, health care, jobs, racist policing, and any number of other issues, the Democratic Party establishment has been an obstacle to the major changes that are needed to improve life for working-class people.
Oprah Winfrey’s stirring speech on sexual assault and harassment at the Golden Globe Awards was positive in its promotion of the #MeToo banner and many are now hoping that she runs for president. However, while Oprah is right to praise women telling their stories, she has nothing to say about collective action or building a mass movement. This is very much in line with the establishment of the Democratic Party and it is clear that, as a billionaire, she is no critic of capitalism.
The primary strategy of capitalism to maintain the rule of a tiny few over billions of workers worldwide is to divide workers from one another along the lines of race, national origin, religion, and gender. Socialist feminism recognizes that the oppression of women is part of the system of capitalism itself, and not simply caused by bad laws, outdated attitudes, or even men themselves. Socialist feminists fight for reforms that make a real difference in the lives of women and to foster solidarity among working-class people. At the same time, we recognize that full liberation for women is only possible on the basis of a socialist transformation of society that eliminates all forms of oppression.
- Unions, women’s organizations, and other forces must launch a mass campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Impeach the “Predator-in-Chief,” serial harasser Trump.
- Build for the next day of action on March 8, International Women’s Day, marching alongside women around the world.
By Erin Brightwell, Socialist Alternative USA