As union president I dealt with dozens of alleged sexual harassment accusations. Most of these were presented informally. For example, a woman reports an incident to a shop steward, who tells the chief steward, who tells the standing committee chairman, who (if deemed serious enough, or if he wants to ruin my day) tells me. Other incidents, usually the more serious ones, were reported directly to a department supervisor or Human Resources.
Even though I was familiar with the issue, I still, to this day, can’t come up with an ironclad definition of harassment. I once innocently suggested to HR that a good way of defining it was to ask ourselves if the behavior in question was something we’d want our wives, sisters or daughters to witness. I must have hit a nerve, because I was berated, scolded, for uttering so stupid a comment. The HR rep made it clear that this “wasn’t about me or my family.” It was about the women on the floor.
The following are some actual incidents.
A young engineer, an Asian woman fresh out of college, and a 60-year old mechanic were discussing how best to rebuild a machine. As the discussion grew more heated, the mechanic blurted out, “Listen, girlie, if you think blah, blah, blah….” The woman reported him to her boss, and the boss approached us instead of HR. Without naming names I went to HR and asked, hypothetically, if addressing a woman as “girlie” constituted sexual harassment. I was told it did. Although 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.
A man returning from a medical leave due to a back injury was casually asked by a female co-worker, “How’s your back?” Being a comedian, he stared directly at her breasts and said, “Fine….how’s your front?” The woman to whom this was addressed 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. He basically told her to mind her own business. She went ahead and reported the incident to HR. As far as I know, nothing came of it.
A middle-aged 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?” While no one thought this lame joke was particularly funny, to my knowledge none of the women ever formally complained about it either—not to the union, not to the company. It was viewed for what it was—a case of a pathetic middle-aged man acting like an adolescent, hoping to shock the ladies.
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 finally went to HR and reported him. The supervisor was fired. The key factor was that this man was a boss, not just a fellow employee. When a boss (someone with power) applies sexual pressure, it’s a whole other deal (as it should be).
It should also be noted that there were, literally, hundreds of other incidents (some serious, some trivial) that went unreported, incidents that we heard about through the grapevine. They happened, they were absorbed, and they were forgotten. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of the women in that facility were too classy and mature to want to see some silly post-adolescent man get in trouble for making a fool of himself. I admired these women for that, even though, in their shoes, I might have behaved less charitably.
I once took a man outside the cafeteria and screamed in his face after hearing him tell a filthy joke to a sweet, older woman. I was at the table when he told the joke. Not in her wildest dreams would this woman have reported the incident to management—even though she had cringed and blushed in embarrassment at hearing it. She was too much of a trooper to rat on anyone. Unfortunately, this clueless fellow didn’t get it. After I gave him the standard spiel about “inappropriate language,” etc., he shook his head in disgust and smirked, “I can remember when America was a free country.”
Thankfully, over the years workplace sensibilities and expectations have changed. They’ve improved. While I’ve never been offended by coarse language, I’m happier that things today are more genteel and respectful. In 1980, I heard a woman supervisor, after having had a rough production night, say to our oncoming crew, “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 sat down and given a Dutch Uncle talk by HR.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org