On Chicago’s Southwest side, a group of parents who are community volunteers recently shared with me a surprising insight about #MeToo.
“Finally! It’s not just us — it happens to rich people too,” one woman told me. “Now nobody can say that we’re lying or that we’re to blame for what happened.”
One positive outcome of the #MeToo campaign has been the overdue spotlight it has put on workplace sexual violence, particularly in blue collar industries. But the public narrative has failed to recognize that women who work on farms, in restaurants and hotels and on the night shift already have been publicly sharing their experiences, risking retaliation, deportation and losing their families. Their voices, even collectively, have created a mere ripple in the public conversation about systemic gender discrimination and violence.
For instance, society doubted the credibility of a hotel worker in Manhattan who had physical evidence of sexual assault at the hands of the French politician Dominique Strauss-Khan five years ago. News stories insinuated that she had provoked the assault and headlines fueled a narrative that she was a “maid” looking to make a quick buck.
After a farmworker, Maricruz Ladino, shared her story of rape at the hands of her manager in the documentary “Rape in the Fields,” strangers called to harass her and her fiance broke off their engagement. The documentary itself, powerful and provocative, did not get 800,000 tweets the day after it aired. Nor did Ladino receive equitable or swift justice; instead, a jury trial refused to believe her and the 20 other plaintiffs who came forward.
After a six-year legal battle with one of the largest fruit producers in the United States, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury decision and the women received a settlement of $272,000.
Our collective response to these stories was half-hearted at best because of how we as a society value blue-collar workers. We condone an economic structure resting largely on the backs of black and brown women workers who earn frighteningly low-wages with no economic security. We promote the invisibility of these workers with the fallacy of the “gig-economy,” ensuring their labor happens behind closed doors, in private homes or at night. By failing to value the labor of women workers in restaurants, farms and hotels, we fail to value their voices when they speak out against injustice.
This is why the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME matters. Unions have fundamentally shifted the power dynamic for millions of women workers, closing wage gaps for unionized workers and passing legislation to combat sexual harassment. Unions have advanced issues that matter most to women, such as access to health care, reproductive justice and community violence. If the Supreme Court agrees with the plaintiff Mark Janus, who likes to say “the union fight is not my fight,” then the Court would ignore how the union-backed policies Janus opposes actually reflect the needs of women blue collar workers — who make up 40 percent of union membership and 47 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Admittedly, unions have their own moment of reckoning in the #MeToo era. Stories from the Chicago Ford plants undoubtedly illustrate the long road unions have yet to take in meaningfully addressing sexual harassment. But gutting unions is not the solution. We need to keep unions strong so they can address this deep-rooted problem affecting the lives of millions of workers.
Hollywood actors, coming forward with their own accounts of being abused, have validated the experiences of others, but it’s thanks to unionized janitor workers in California and hotel workers in Chicago that #MeToo has its current political momentum. Until a hotel worker can get 800,000 responses to their tweet on their own, unions are an essential force to ensure that each woman worker, no matter the color of her collar, has the same culture-shifting power.
Karla Altmayer is a Chicago labor and immigration attorney. She is a co-founder of Healing to Action and the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence.