Tears welled up in her eyes as she recounted how her boss had ‘done things to her’ – repeatedly, over a long period of time. She’d said nothing because she feared for her job. But this story is not set in a movie studio, hotel suite, or corporate office. Juana is a farmworker, and we were sitting in a State Senator’s office in Albany, advocating for agricultural workers to have the same rights as every other kind of worker in the state. What held her prisoner was an H2A guest-worker visa that tied her legal presence in the US to a particular farm – and in this case, to a particular farmer.
Juana’s story underlines what’s missing from the current media frenzy about sexual harassment. Even the recent front-page story on well-meaning men grappling with how not to be sexual harassers elides ‘men at work’ and ‘white collar-workplaces’ – ignoring yet again the nearly 20 million blue collar workers in our country. The outrage about sexual harassment, and the investigative journalism that has fueled it, needs to shines a light on those who work with their hands, not just those who sit at computers or work on stages. And those stories could do more than remind us that this happens to women who are not movie stars; in the case of agricultural workers, it also highlights some creative ways to think about what might work to address sexual harassment more generally.
Sexual harassment and assault among women in agricultural work is not new, yet it’s rarely news. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing one study in which 80% of women farmworkers experience sexual harassment, recounted how farmworkers in one Salinas farm “referred to one of the company’s fields as the field de calzon, or ‘field of panties’ because so many women had been raped by supervisors there.” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has succeeded in getting fast food chains and supermarkets to sign onto their Campaign for Fair Food, which they claim has “virtually eliminated” sexual harassment and assault among the participating tomato farms in Florida through worker-to-worker education and paid staff from the Fair Foods Council to monitor and enforce a code of conduct and investigate violations. This seems incredible – after all, if this problem is so intractable in Hollywood, Wall Street, or Silicon Valley, how could CIW address it so effectively? And yet that’s what the PBS Frontline producers found when they went to film Rape in the Fields. La lucha continues, and CIW’s Harvest Without Violence campaign is pushing hard right now to get Wendy’s, the last fast-food holdout, to sign on.
CIW’s work has garnered a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant and White House honors – but it’s just focused on tomatoes. And while people are clearly making movie-watching decision to register disgust with directors or stars against whom accusations have been made, we can’t opt out of a US food system that is built on multiple forms of exploitation, of which vulnerability to sexual harassment is just one. So what can we do?
State policy offers some clear paths forward – but in New York the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would guarantee the right to collective bargaining, has languished in Albany, hostage to Cuomo’s preference to grandstand about immigrants’ rights rather than act concretely to improve them if it requires taking on powerful corporate interests. He was quick to support nailworkers’ rights (there’s no Big Nail giving him campaign contributions), but has lacked the spine to stand up to the Farm Bureau. Labor unions have long taken on the issue of sexual harassment for working women, and if New York’s agricultural workers had the right to collective bargaining, Juana might at least have had a union shop steward to whom she could turn for support and possible recourse. Or New York could join the 12 states across the country that allow limited-purpose driving permits for the undocumented. A license to drive would’ve helped Juana get to the hospital after being assaulted without worrying that a traffic stop for a busted taillight would lead to deportation.
This is not just about agricultural workers – it’s about all the women across the country who face harassment or assault from men who are more powerful than they are but not powerful enough for anyone to care about taking them down publicly. No one is even listening for their #MeToos. I bet there’s no New York Times reporter doing a big expose right now on sexual harassment in the poultry factories in the Delmarva peninsula, no full court press by the Washington Post to confirm rumors about that gross manager at the convenience store, and zero column-inches devoted to the trials of summer workers at the nation’s amusement parks. Addressing sexual harassment among women in elite settings is important, but it won’t ‘trickle down’ to stop sexual harassment of working class women.
If the ‘click moment’ that some are contending will lead to a profound generational shift leaves behind working-class women, it will just play into the narrative about the system being rigged – yet one more way in which social change creates disparities, rather than improving conditions for everyone. In the aftermath of the allegations about Roy Moore, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about how sexual harassment should not be a partisan issue – but it also shouldn't be a class issue. Opposition to sexual harassment shouldn’t signal membership in the coastal elites. Instead, let’s make the narrative about the right to work without fear. And the omission of working-class women’s stories explains at least in part how women in Alabama might continue to support Moore – they may not believe that the outrage about famous men who do disgusting things is going to protect them from a boss who rubs up against them at the register or assaults them in the stockroom. What’s been set in motion must lead to make policy changes so that women can work without fear in jobs where there’s no black tie Christmas party. Otherwise we’ll just be showing the working-class women who voted for Trump, despite his pussygrabbing, that they were right after all about their stories not mattering.