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Can We Talk About Sexual Harassment?

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The one positive thing Herman Cain's presidential campaign accomplished, albeit unintentionally, was putting the issue of sexual harassment on center stage. That often ignored, down-played, and statistically under-reported workplace problem rarely gets the attention it deserves.

And even when sexual harassment does become a topic of discussion, the subsequent analysis tends to produce more heat than light. In truth, as worthy of attention as sexual harassment is, it is a frustratingly elusive concept to pin down. Indeed, one is reminded of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on the difficulty of defining obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

But elusive or not, let's be clear. If George W. Bush had massaged the shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an American office or factory -- and not at the 2006 G8 Summit, in Saint Petersburg, Russia -- it would've been treated as sexual harassment, plain and simple. If you're unfamiliar with the Bush incident, check it out on YouTube. A man walks up behind a woman and, without permission, begins rubbing her shoulders? Are you kidding? No matter how innocent his motives, the guy would have been marched up to Human Resources quicker than you could say, "Achtung."

During my tenure as union president, I dealt with dozens of sexual harassment allegations. Most of these were presented informally. Typically, a woman would report an incident to a shop steward, who would tell the chief steward, who would then tell the standing committee chairman, who (if the allegation was deemed serious enough, or if he wanted to ruin my day) would come and tell me. The more serious incidents were usually reported directly to the department supervisor or Human Resources.

Yet, as familiar as I was/am with the issue, I cannot, to this day, give a one-size-fits-all definition of sexual harassment. I once innocently suggested to HR that a good way of identifying it was to ask ourselves if the behavior in question was something we'd want our wives, sisters or daughters to witness. Well, that observation couldn't have been more wrong. I was instantly berated for making so stupid a statement. The HR rep made it clear that this wasn't about me or my family's sensibilities. It had nothing to do with us. It was all about the women on the floor. Period.

Here are some accounts of actual incidents. They're all true.

A young woman engineer and a middle-aged mechanic were arguing over a job. The argument got heated, and the mechanic blurted out, "Listen, girlie, if you think blah, blah, blah...." The woman later reported him to her boss, and her boss contacted the union. Without mentioning names, I went up to HR and asked, hypothetically, if addressing a woman as "girlie" constituted sexual harassment. I was told it did. While first-time use of the word wouldn't result in discipline, it would result in a written warning being placed in the employee's personnel file. The union later persuaded the mechanic to apologize to the engineer, and, happily, HR never got involved.

A man was accused of inappropriately touching a female co-worker (he gave her an unwanted back-rub). Because this woman was relatively new to the facility, she didn't know this man had a reputation as a "toucher." He touched everyone. He hugged people, rubbed them, squeezed them, slapped them on the back, playfully mock-punched them. He was an octopus. But after the incident -- after being warned by HR to keep his hands to himself -- he became embarrassed and belligerent, telling people to stay the hell away from him. This lasted for about two months, after which he gradually reverted to his old self, and began touching people again. No one reported him.

A man returning from a medical leave due to a back injury was politely asked by a female co-worker, "How's your back?" Being a comedian, he leaned forward, leered at her breasts, and said, "How's your front?" The woman who asked the question said nothing and simply walked away, but another woman (God help us, a former steward) overheard the exchange and reported it to the union standing committee chairman, who basically told her to mind her own business. Not to be denied, she reported the incident to HR. As far as I know, nothing came of it.

A man went around the department asking women if they'd ever smelled mothballs. When they answered yes, he asked them, "How'd you hold him... by his legs or his wings?" He proudly told the same joke to 10-12 women. While few of the women thought it was particularly funny, none of them reported it -- not to the union, not to the company. Had they reported it, there would've been an investigation. The man likely wouldn't have been disciplined, but an investigation definitely would have occurred. Instead, the women on the floor took it for what it was - -a case of a middle-aged man acting like an adolescent, hoping to shock the girls.

A production supervisor continued to hit on a female worker (whom he used to date), cornering her at work, calling her at home, telling her he still had feelings, asking her to renew the relationship. Even though she made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him, he persisted. She went to HR and reported him. The supervisor was fired. The key factor here was that he was a boss, and not a fellow employee. When a boss (someone with power) applies sexual pressure, it's a whole other deal.

It should be noted that there were, literally, hundreds of other incidents (some serious, some borderline, some trivial) that went unreported, incidents we heard about through the grapevine. They happened, and they were more or less forgotten. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of the women in that facility were too classy and mature to want to see some silly man get in trouble for making a fool of himself. I admired these women for that, even though, had I been in their shoes, I'm not sure I would have behaved quite so generously. Hearing that crap would've gotten old very quickly.

I once screamed in the face of a young man who told a filthy joke to a very gentle 60-year old woman. I was at the table when he told it. Even though the joke made this woman visibly cringe and blush in embarrassment, there was no way she ever would've reported him because it simply wasn't in her nature to snitch. Unfortunately, this young fellow didn't get it. After I took him outside and screamed at him, he shook his head in disgust and said, "I can remember when America was a free country."

Thankfully, over the years, workplace sensibilities and expectations have changed. They've improved. Things are far more genteel and respectful today. In 1980, we heard a woman supervisor say to the oncoming crew, after having had a rough night fighting the machinery, "I feel like I've been shot at and missed, and shit at and hit." We all laughed. If she said the same thing today, she'd be issued a written warning by HR.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at