Health and Safety

Unions Help Women Fight Sexual Harassment

October 17, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco 

Fellow ironworkers support LaFondra Brown.

Fellow ironworkers support LaFondra Brown.

New York, NY – Successfully confronting sexual harassment on the job can be daunting enough, but for women working without union representation, the challenge is even more difficult. 

When LaFondra Brown walked off her job in the Bronx last week citing sexual harassment by supervisors, she did so with the support of the New York State Iron Workers District Council and the NYC Community Alliance for Worker Justice behind her. 

Too, often, however, women facing worker abuse and sexual harassment across many different industries feel isolated and susceptible to their employers’ offenses. 

Such harassment is illegal and perpetrators can be prosecuted. 

“Every woman has a right to work on any job free of unwanted taunting and sexual advances,” says New York City Councilman Andy King [D-12th District]. “I would like to ask the guys who are perpetrating these offenses how they would feel if it were their mother, sister, wife or daughter being harassed on the job. Sexual harassment will not and should not be tolerated on anybody’s watch. We all should be treated with courtesy, respect and professionalism.”

As incredible as it may seem to many here in the 21st century, that simple message is one that still needs to be stressed in certain dark corners of the workplace. 

“People are victims of sexual harassment most frequently when they’re in a workplace where they are particularly vulnerable,” says Charlene Obernauer, executive director, New York Committee for Occupational Health & Safety [NYCOSH].

According to NYCOSH, and ROC-United [Restaurant Opportunties Center], women employed as domestic workers and restaurant servers working for tips, are especially vulnerable to unscrupulous bosses. But as Brown’s case demonstrates, sexual harassment can happen anywhere in the workplace. 

Unlike their counterparts in the non-union sector, however, organized labor has made great strides over the years both promoting female employment and confronting sexual harassment on the job. 

“I’ve never been sexually harassed on the job,” Local 580 ironworker Cherille Yon, recently told LaborPress. “The men understand their boundaries. I’ve been in the union for awhile and never had anyone cross that line with me.” 

Many trades have made gender equality an integral part of their topflight training programs. 

Erin Sweeney, proud union plumber.

Erin Sweeney, proud union plumber.

Erin Sweeney, a third-year plumbers apprentice from Brooklyn who got her start through NEW [Nontraditional Employment for Women] – a group that works closely with organized labor to prepare women for jobs in construction, transportation, energy, and facilities maintenance, found an thriving new career in an industry that used to be almost completely alien to women. 

“I did well in the NEW program, they helped me get into the plumbers union, and I’ve loved it ever since then,” Sweeney says. “It’s been fantastic. And a lot more women are on the job in the last two years.”

What Yon and Sweeney both share is a working environment that not only fosters a climate of gender equality, but also a reliable mechanism to address transgressions should they occur. 

“In general, what a union does provide is a method of approaching your boss or supervisor in a protected format,” Obernauer says. “The whole philosophy behind a union is that you’re not alone. I think when you have a unionized workforce, you’re better able to address those concerns and you’re able to have a more transparent way to approach your supervisor.”

Brown’s bold decision to strike last week against the Auringer-family of building contractors, has spurred Councilman King to begin closely scrutinizing the histories of contractors presently working for the city.   

“If necessary, we’re going to have to create tougher laws that govern the workplace,” the Bronx representative says. “Until that time, we must enforce the laws that are on the books.”

October 17, 2014

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