It is the beginning of Sexual Awareness Month, which is a time to talk about this important issue, understand the problem and promote change. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that includes unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and hostile, verbal, or physical conduct based on gender. It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, which is a statistic only based on reported incidents from victims. This serious issue has been in the forefront of the news lately with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gaining traction. However, charges of sexual harassment have not always been taken seriously.
In the Labor History Collections exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America,” there are several historical examples of the labor movement fighting for victims of sexual harassment, giving them a voice.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment has been a prevalent problem, predominantly for women, in the workplace for centuries and not until recently have there been any laws to protect victims. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created the foundation to eventually obtain protection against sexual harassment legally because this Act made it illegal to discriminate based on sex. In the case of Carmita Wood in 1975, Wood filed for unemployment benefits from Cornell University after quitting her job due to unwanted touching by her male supervisor. This was the first sexual harassment case to ever be presented in court. A decade later in 1986, the first sexual harassment case taken to the US Supreme Court was Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.  Plaintiff Mechelle Vinson was a bank employee who was intimidated by her boss into having sex with him up to fifty times. This landmark case, with a vote of 9-0, established protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make sexual harassment illegal in the workplace.
“In Canada and the U.S., labor unions have approached sexual harassment as a trade union, human, and civil rights issue. They have been key participants, if not initiators, in using public policies, collective bargaining contracts, the courts, organizing, education, and coalition building to prevent sexual harassment in employment.” – When I say No, I mean No: How to stop sexual harassment, a handbook for unions
Since sexual harassment was not illegal in the workplace until 40 years ago, unions have sought to play a greater role in helping victims have a voice and uphold stricter policies. As women have entered the workforce in large numbers throughout the years, more have joined unions. With the establishment of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in 1974, union women’s concerns have gained greater attention in the labor movement. Today, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is “dedicated to preventing harassment, assault and other unwanted behavior through education and enforcement of strong policies, and by fostering workplace cultures that support working women and men”.
With the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, CLUW and many women labor leaders see this heightened awareness and activism as an opprotunity to advance the struggle against a problem that has plagued the workplace for centuries.
“Sexual harassment is an expression of power and CLUW is committed to putting our collective power to fight for real and measurable progress.” – Union Women: #MeToo & #TimesUp Movement article
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.
. Lee, Hailey (2017). One-fifth of American adults have experienced sexual harassment at work, CNBC survey says. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/19/one-fifth-of-american-adults-have-been-sexually-harassed-at-work.html
. Fenton, Matthew K. (2018). A History of Sexual Harassment Laws in the United States. Employee Right Attorneys. Retrieved from https://www.wenzelfenton.com/blog/2018/01/01/history-sexual-harassment-laws-united-states/
. Cohen, Sascha (2016). A Brief History of Sexual Harassment in America Before Anita Hill. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4286575/sexual-harassment-before-anita-hill/