New York’s unions have a proud history of combatting social injustice. They give employees the strength to stand up against unsafe or unfair practices, including wrongful termination. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more unions are finding their loyalties pulled in two competing directions.
A recent article by The New York Times highlighted the matter. Even as the #MeToo movement has encouraged more victims of sexual harassment to report, it has prompted many employers to respond swiftly and aggressively against perpetrators. Their responses are sometimes out of line, but when unions speak against the employers’ use of discipline, they can appear as though they’re dismissing the victims. This is especially troubling when the victims may be union members too.
Striking a better balance
Some unions have already drawn fire for appearing to fight for member’s jobs more than they support victims’ rights, and others have noticed. The New York Times story focused mostly on the arts and entertainment industry, and it noted several ways those unions had responded to these challenges:
- The American Guild of Musical Artists set up a sexual harassment hotline.
- It also assigns separate representation to each side of conflicts between members.
- The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society revised its publications. They now say that members have the right to a safe workplace, as well as a responsibility to create one.
- Some unions have started writing new codes of conduct. These might clarify inappropriate behavior and help the unions support victimized members.
Unfortunately, participation in unions is on the decline. More than one-third of private-sector workers belonged to unions in the 1950s, but unions now account for just one-sixteenth of the workforce. Corporations and legislators keep applying new pressures. And in this context, the ways that unions respond to sexual harassment claims may prove truly existential. Unions offer workers vital support, and they need to show that support as fully as possible on all sides of the difficult issues.