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#MeToo: Workers’ Rights Edition

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What if there was a movement analogous to #MeToo, but surrounding other, especially egregious abuses of workers’ rights? There would be so many potential parallels, especially considering that one important component of the #MeToo movement involves acknowledging abusive labor practices. The question of being believed is one that would weigh on the mind of the victim. Would a coworker who had a different experience believe you? Would a coworker having the same experience even understand? My personal experience shows that belief of such claims varies on a case-by-case basis.


At a previous workplace, an employee was upfront about how dishonest a one-person Human Resources department was towards various employees, while two others in the same workplace didn’t question my explanation of what went wrong. But after leaving a different workplace, a former coworker tried her best on two different occasions to explain how her many positive experiences somehow nullified my negative ones. Not only couldn’t she accept that different people in that office had different experiences, but she also couldn’t accept that her limited knowledge of my situation was propped up by false assumptions.


Worse yet, in the situation of the abused worker, the perpetrator is likely to be HR. If so, it would likely be impossible to approach the topic within the workplace without encountering the perpetrator.


Recourse for correcting sexual harassment and worker abuse is also similar. Talking to HR, someone (everyone) above the responsible party, the union (if there is one), the state’s Department of Labor, or a lawyer are the main options. Unfortunately, approaching any of these resources may end badly for the victim.


Innovative third-party resources like the Shitty Media Men list could take the shape of Illegal HR Practices. This list could either steer prospective employees away from companies that refuse to pay them properly, or it could offer proven advice on how to deal with specific infractions. Either way, the worker would know more than is usually available at the time of applying for a job. But resources that may evaluate a workplace’s legal compliance do exist already. Take Glassdoor, for example. But like the Shitty Media Men list, they come with all the faults and risks of crowdsourced information.


There are some parallels that can’t be duplicated. #MeToo is recognition that certain individuals create a toxic culture, while official company policy, written or not, is often the basis of workers’ rights abuses. For example, an HR representative once told me that a freelancer is whatever the employer decides—clearly, that institution didn’t care to acknowledge that the Department of Labor set out an official legal definition of what a freelancer was. Official company policy therefore contributes to a potentially more widely shared harm within a labor environment.


However, if a culture of silencing stands in the place of official company policy, then perpetrators of sexual harassment in a workplace have further reach than can be attributed to an individualized phenomenon.


Another major difference is that workers are more likely to recognize sexual harassment than other types of abusive labor practices. “Repeated, unwanted attention of a sexual nature” is a lot easier to understand than the myriad and often subtle ways employers abuse workers. And, an employer is significantly more likely to bring up the meaning of sexual harassment than the meaning of something like employee misclassification.


An explanation of how to handle sexual harassment would likely be in an employee handbook, but the employer would likely assume that the worker trusts the employer to acknowledge the worker’s rights (outside of those mentioned in a handbook or required to be displayed in an office).


It is true that unions exist and that one of their duties is to protect workers’ rights, but unions have been in decline for several decades. I’ve never been a part of a job that had one. In fact, more general fights for workers’ rights are so insular that they often don’t transcend recognition beyond within the original problematic workplace.


Workers have become on their own in so many ways that it was inevitable that the #MeToo movement touched workplaces so profoundly, and it seems likely that other movements will, too. Organizers of the Women’s March 2018 recognize the intersectionality between their plight and the plight of the worker. Building solidarity between those who don’t hold both identities of victim of sexual harassment and employee can make the movements for workers and for women even bigger and stronger, and it should.

Bernadette Davis

Bernadette Davis received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and American Literature in 2013 at New York University. She also received a Master of Science degree in Publishing: Digital and Print Media in 2015, also at New York University. In addition to writing for SOULE, Davis is the founder of Automated Books, a publishing company that has the goal of reshaping the literary landscape.

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