Want to Fight Sexual Violence? Look to the Labor Movement

As an anti-rape activist, I propose taking a look at our sisters in the labor movement and learning by example to build our constituencies and gain momentum on difficult and long-ignored workplace violence issues.
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Women at the helm of the labor movement are tackling long ignored workplace issues. They are fighting for paid sick days in New York and Illinois, and advocating for sustainable care-giving models through the Caring Across Generations campaign. Even more, they are using explosive organizing models to recruit and mobilize members at feverish rates, or, as head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance Ai-jen Poo likes to say, "organizing at the speed of love."

A recent article in the Nation pointed to the rise of women in workplace justice campaigns as a path forward for a stalling movement. But it's not just the labor movement that needs more women leaders. The women's movement needs more labor leaders too.

As an anti-rape activist, I propose taking a look at our sisters in the labor movement and learning by example to build our constituencies and gain momentum on difficult and long-ignored workplace violence issues. Through forging alliances with new voices in the labor movement, anti-rape activists can open pathways for marginalized voices in our advocacy, broaden our priorities to include economic justice goals, and reinvigorate the anti-rape movement in unprecedented ways.

We are starting to do this in Chicago. Just a few days after the Nation article came out, the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence (CAWSV) met in a small conference room at Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago-based rape crisis center. The group has been meeting every month for close to a year and a half. Labor organizers from Chicago worker centers like the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, Latino Union, ARISE-Chicago and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos regularly meet with anti-rape advocates, attorneys and government officials to bridge the anti-rape and labor rights movements through dialogue, resource sharing, and collaborative education for workers and activists. Several worker centers that participate in the CAWSV are local affiliates of larger national organizations.

At the CAWSV's inception, (mostly women) labor organizers passionately voiced the need for greater movement attention to the sexual violence that many of their members faced at work, and at home. At first, the CAWSV served mostly as a place to share resources. A labor organizer needed a rape counseling referral for a worker, or a sexual assault attorney provided thoughts on a proposed piece of local labor legislation. However, slowly, the group identified the lack of useful tools for either movement, specific to the issue of workplace sexual violence. As a result, rape crisis advocates from around Chicago, including Rape Victim Advocates, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the YWCA and Pillars worked with labor organizers and attorneys to create a 40 page curriculum on workplace sexual violence to raise the issue of gender inequality and sexual violence in their worker communities. Legal stakeholders like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and LAF Chicago also created a sexual assault legal guide for labor organizers to aid them in identifying legal violations that their members might experience.

On a cloudy day last October, the curriculum launched at the offices of the Latino Union in Albany Park. The day started with attendees sharing the labor of their mothers and grandmothers and discussing the changes in women's labor participation over generations. It also helped illustrate the pervasiveness of violence against women, whether it was in the context of labor they provided at home for their families, or in the workplace.

Feedback throughout the day was thoughtful, and mixed. Some attendees expressed frustration that the curriculum had insufficient tools for organizing against workplace sexual violence. Several attendees voiced a desire for men to become more outspoken in combating gender inequality in the labor movement, starting with greater participation in the training itself. The feedback received from the launch is being used to update and improve the curriculum. In the aftermath of the launch, one worker center expressed interest in starting a men's group that confronts traditional understandings of masculinity and dominance. As one of the facilitators for the day, it was an incredible opportunity to speak with new stakeholders in the fight against workplace sexual violence, and to recognize that without our collaboration with worker centers, I would have never met them.

Building these activist tools caused women's rights and labor advocates to sit down and hash out difficult questions over the course of several months. Was the goal of worker education around workplace sexual violence to move members to action or to create healing spaces for disclosures by survivors of sexual violence? Could both goals be achieved in one program? Was the primary purpose to reform workplaces or provide a heightened awareness of gender inequality within the labor movement itself? How would rape crisis advocates be received by the worker centers? How would we even begin to broach such sensitive topics for the first time in multi-generational, multi-cultural worker communities?

In thinking through these issues, we had to think about our movement's message as a whole: how to make it palatable to men of color; to low-wage workers; to individuals who perceive us as aligned with the government and/or criminal justice system, and are skeptical as a result. Digging into our coalition work forced us to think about larger constituencies that were natural allies, but they were often overlooked in our razor-sharp focus on meeting the needs of direct victims of workplace abuse.

Addressing such complex questions exposed the inherent tensions between the labor organizing and rape crisis intervention approaches. For example, one organizer discussed the effectiveness of storytelling as an organizing tool to provide workers the opportunity to connect over shared struggles. A rape crisis advocate responded with concerns that disclosure of abuse by workers to a relatively new group could trigger re-traumatization. Rape crisis centers, with an emphasis on individualized and confidential services for survivors, often addressed the importance of healing that centered on the individual rape survivor. Labor organizers focused more often on eradicating silence in their movements and to the public about the struggles of women workers, including painful stories of workplace sexual violence. We'd often pick one approach or the other as we worked out a training module, but ultimately we all left the meetings with a bit of self-doubt. Yet the doubt served as a catalyst for growth, introspection, and movement transformation.

Representatives from both groups were intensely committed to the healing and empowerment of survivors, and demonstrated respect and curiosity towards the concerns and feedback of their cross-movement counterparts. Ultimately, these discussions enabled members of each movement to examine how their specific training informed their approach to workplace sexual violence, and how that approach could be expanded to include more transformative social tools. More importantly, it enabled a safe and moving space to form, where activists better appreciated the intense work that cross-movement allies were undertaking, received support from new and energizing perspectives, and returned to their own organizations with a few more tools to combat the endemic problem of sex inequality and sexual violence against low-wage workers.

This year, the Coalition has identified a new priority: bringing lessons from the newly energized labor movement to rape crisis centers. Leaders such as Poo and Saru Jayaraman of ROC United have emerged as distinctly feminist voices, boldly transforming the face and the tone of the labor movement. Admittedly, many anti-rape activists remain unclear as to what a worker center is, much less sure of how it could become an additional site for anti-rape organizing. But the worker center itself is a perfect example of a movement approach that works, and could be adapted to the anti-rape movement. Establishing venues where organizers can create continued contact with workers, meet them in their communities, provide them with essential training and empowerment tools to thrive in their work, and also engage with them in sustained conversations about equality, social justice and yes, sexual violence--this is a model that is working.

Chicago-based rape crisis centers are committed to more closely partnering with the labor campaigns that naturally dovetail with combating workplace sexual violence. For example, the proposed Illinois Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights has a provision that would finally include domestic workers (predominantly women) under existing state sexual harassment laws. The coalition is supporting this bill, and hoping to get more anti-rape organizations on board.

Strong, empowered workers are much less vulnerable to tolerating ongoing sexual violence. The collective struggle for dignified work--safe workplaces, fair labor practices, living wages, paid sick time--is a stronger bulwark against sexual violence than any sexual harassment policy or individual lawsuit ever could be. Economic justice thwarts sexual exploitation. Partnerships like the CAWSV are just one model for amplifying the urgency of ending workplace violence, and diversifying the voices and strategies in the struggle. But if we are truly going to end sexual violence in the workplace,we need to expand our toolbox. To fight against sexual violence, anti-rape activists need not only to get behind the labor movement, but to learn from it.

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