Resistance from the Trade Union

last updated September 20, 2005

The path to unions’ acceptance of sexual harassment as an important union issue has not always been easy or straightforward.  For example, in some of the most well-publicized hostile work environment cases in the U.S. in the early 1990’s, the unions opposed the victims’ claims.  However, in some of the cases in which the women prevailed, the cases resulted in newly drafted sexual harassment policies and procedures and educational programs on sexual harassment in the workplace.  For an overview of some challenges in the U.S. to union acceptance of sexual harassment, yet the importance of unions addressing these issues, see Marion Crain, “Women, Labor Unions, and Hostile Work Environment Sexual harassment: The Untold Story,” Texas Journal of Women and the Law, vol 4 Issue 1, Summer 1995; Colatosti and Karg, chapter 5 (An Unhelpful Union).

In 1998, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settled a case it had brought against Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America for an alleged pattern or practice of sexual harassment, sex-based harassment, and retaliation against a class of female employees.  Mitsubishi settled the case by agreeing to pay thirty-four million dollars to the eligible claimants, which was the largest cash settlement that the EEOC had negotiated in a sexual harassment case.  Mitsubishi also agreed to take measures to achieve a zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment, provide training, and improve prevention and complaint procedures. A similar class action lawsuit was also settled with Mitsubishi.  The UAW and local union were “Rule 19” Parties to the EEOC case.  The Court joined the unions into the case, and the unions agreed to be joined and to be signatories to the Consent Decree.  According to; and, the unions agreed to make their best efforts to cooperate with the non-monetary relief required by the Consent Decree.

The warning in this case is as much to the trade union as it is to the employer.  Allegedly  the need for the EEOC case and private law suit was largely the fault of the trade union, which did not effectively handle sexual harassment complaints. Rochelle Sharpe, “Women at Mitsubishi Say Union Fell Short on Sexual Harassment,” July 10, 1996 found on describes how the union routinely refused to file grievances against the company for allowing a hostile work environment.

The union only filed six grievances with the company in eight years despite receiving dozens of complaints.  Some women appealed to the international headquarters of United Auto Workers, which had a national reputation for being sensitive to sexual harassment. Nevertheless the headquarters would not force the issue. In one case, a woman hired an attorney and filed charges with the EEOC. The company fired the alleged harasser.  At that time the union finally filed a formal grievance, but it was on behalf of the alleged harasser to try to get his job back.

The lessons to be learned from the Mitsubishi case are vital to a successful trade union practice against sexual harassment.  Listed below are some of the perceived problems that prevented effective resolution of sexual harassment at the plant found on union had a weak labor contract that lacked specific provisions for dealing with sexual harassment issues, encouraged managers and workers to solve problems before engaging the union, and lacked an important clause to investigate complaints quickly.

  • The union and the company did not know how to address sexual harassment.
  • The union felt conflicted in its duties to protect its members jobs as they were filing complaints against each other.
  • In one example, a manager who spoke to a victim’s work group about harassment mentioned her by name.
  • The union discouraged members from trying to bring discipline against other members.
  • Despite the existence of a civil rights committee that was eager to help, it was limited in what it could do because the bargaining committee did not ask it to help.
  • The local leadership did not seem to acknowledge that sexual or racial discrimination existed at the plant.
  • The union contract did not allow the union to file a grievance until after the members had followed a lengthy process.  They were first required to speak with their direct supervisor, then speak with their union coordinator, who was then required to meet with company officials.  (Nevertheless the union had filed hundreds of grievances on matters other than sexual harassment.)
  • There were no grounds for a grievance if there were two employees involved and the union could not find that the company was guilty.
  • Once a complaint was put in writing, the union was required to help the employee resolve it any way it could, so complaints often did not reach the written stage.
  • If an employee was fired because the union complained, the union had to try to get the employee’s job back.  The employee might even have a legal case against the union for failing to represent him or her.
  • The contract lacked an “equal-application agreement” which would have established a joint committee of company and union leaders to investigate complaints within forty-eight hours.  Such a committee can recommend other remedies than discipline and immediately separate the alleged harasser and the complaining employee.

Unions can learn from the experience of the union and the company in the Mitsubishi case.  Sexual harassment procedures must be explicit, firm, and specific in the collective bargaining agreement to aid unions in representing victims to end sexual harassment.