Beyond Hollywood: Reaching all workplaces with #MeToo

Time magazine declared the “Silence Breakers” of the #MeToo Movement its 2017 “Person of the Year.” “Me Too” creator, Tarana Burke, started the iconic Times Square ball drop, welcoming in the New Year, and perhaps, symbolizing a collective resolve to end sexual violation and violence. To do that will require a long-term commitment to recognizing how this problem damages humanity and impedes the making of a democratic and egalitarian society. That means addressing it on all levels and in all workplaces, be they schools, hotels, fast food restaurants or big box stores.

In 2017, sexual harassment and assault stories about Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, told by actresses and Miramax staff, and first published in The New York Times and The New Yorker, burst open workplace doors behind which powerful men, all too often, hide their behavior. The flood of accusations swept through the media, entertainment, art and political worlds taking with it VIPs who call shots and mold worldviews. Matt Lauer, Louis CK, Russell Simmons, Al Franken, Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, appear on the list of the accused and removed.

Hollywood women recently announced a new initiative to reach working-class women who don’t have the resources or star power to get redress for harassment and discrimination that they face. The group, Time’s Up, consists of 300 women who work in film, television and theater.

“Powered by women, TIME’S UP addresses the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential,” their mission statement reads.

Spurred on by a solidarity letter from the National Farmworkers Women Alliance (Alianza Nacional de Campesinas), this group of actresses, lawyers, directors, writers, agents and executives, such as Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, America Ferrara, have created a legal defense fund for low-income women to be able to fight cases in court and change structural inequality “from movie sets to farm fields to boardrooms alike.”

If there is a constant in each of these harassment stories, it is eloquently summed up by The New Yorker columnist Jane Mayer, “Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face.” Celebrities often have that kind of power. But what about the women toiling in offices, factories, kitchens, classrooms or casinos?

Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her boss Clarence Thomas, is credited with giving the nation an entire language about which workplace sexual harassment could be described. This founding mother of the movement told Mayer that in order to give this historic movement staying power to end harassment it has to go beyond the high profile cases.

Sexual harassment cases live and die on the basis of “believability,” she said. Celebrities often have that and Hill said she fears it “won’t translate to everyday women, or even those in high-profile careers in places like Silicon Valley.”

“We need to transfer the believability,” Hill said. What the article left unsaid was how race and class influence public opinion and “believability.” Accusers, be they black or brown women, immigrant or trans women, or working-class women of all races are more often than not dismissed, unheard or not believed.

One Chicago-based group is attempting to change that dynamic and translate the “believability” to “everyday women.” The union, Unite-Here Local 1, whose members work in the casino and hospitality industries, published a report last year, titled “Hands Off, Pants On: Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Hospitality Industry,” which led to the City Council passing an ordinance October 11,  2017, designed to protect hotel workers – union and non-union. The report is based on a survey of almost 500 union members who work or have worked in the hospitality industry. They also launched a website, handsoffpantson.org, dedicated to this issue.

Among the disturbing findings were the high numbers of women who reported being violated on the job. Almost half of the housekeepers surveyed said they have had “guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked,” and “65% of casino cocktail servers surveyed have had a guest grope, pinch or grab them or try to touch them in an unwelcome way.”

Because these abusive hotel and casino guests are almost always socially and economically advantaged men, and the harassed workers are almost always women, many of whom are immigrant women and/or women of color, you have “a power dynamic ripe for abuse,” the report concludes.

It’s a power dynamic that banks on women being too embarrassed or shameful to say anything, supervisors or personnel departments too willing to look the other way or bury the complaint and a legal system too hostile to women to listen and believe what they say.

“I knocked on the guest door. I announced myself and the guest answered, ‘Come in.’ I opened the door and he was naked. It was horrible,” said one Unite-Here housekeeper in the report.

A casino waitress told her story about asking four men what she could get for them. They replied, “Milk.” She asked how many cups? They said, “Two,” and pointed at her breasts and laughed. “I was seven months pregnant. I felt so disgusted and embarrassed,” she said.

The union recruited male labor leaders from Chicago to give their reactions to these stories. The results, “unscripted and genuine,” are captured on video.

After reading the casino waitress’ story, Rocco Terranova of the Sheet Metal workers, turned to the camera, shaking his head. “Pigs,” he said.

“Nobody. Nobody deserves to be treated like this. You go to work to support your families, make a living, and this is what you’re face with … It’s terrible. And something has to be done about it,” said James P. Connolly of the Laborers union.

The union’s approach is useful and instructive. By asking these men to read the hospitality workers’ stories, reacting to them in real time, the union is recruiting male allies to the issue. As brave and important as it is for women and girls to speak up and demand an end to sexual harassment and assault, it is equally important for men to do the same. After all, it’s men who perpetrate the problem.

“It’s not right,” said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “I want to ask these guys: ‘Who do they think they are’.”

Men have a stake in this fight. With the most well-known sexual abuser sitting in the White House and the 2018 elections coming up, it will also take collective power at the voting booth and beyond to guarantee rights already won and expand them to include pay equity, among other needed political, economic and social rights for all.