Role of Trade Unions in Effecting Sexual Harassment Legislation and Regulation Through Political Action and Advocacy

last updated September 20, 2005

Trade unions and workers’ associations can serve an important role in effecting strong anti-sexual harassment laws and policies at local, state, and national levels. Unions often directly advocate for effective policies and have won many victories in this regard.

Unions and associations can be vital in mobilizing workers to participate in the political process by contacting legislators and voting. The California Labor Federation-AFL-CIO’s site, http://www.calaborfed.org/issues_politics/political/local_unions.html, states as an example the following: unions can orchestrate voter registration drives. Some unions have tool kits for political action.

This labor federation describes its role in politics and elections, on this website: http://www.calaborfed.org/issues_politics/political/local_unions.html.in the following three statements:
California Labor Federation affiliates work together to:

  1. Endorse candidates who support Labor issues
  2. Get union members out to vote on election day
  3. Hold officials accountable once they are elected

California’s Labor Federation has a detailed voter registration kit that unions can use to help people register found on http://www.calaborfed.org/pdfs/VoterRegKit.pdf It also has a detailed guide to phone bank procedures for contacting members regarding elections and candidates found on http://www.cluw.org/political.html#5, contains many useful links to other women’s and workers’ organizations that are encouraging women’s participation in the democratic process such as encouraging women to run for public office. The U.S. organization “9 to 5, National Association of Working Women,” also encourages women’s participation in the political process. Their website, http://www.9to5.org/vote/, contains such tools as information on political issues and a voter’s guide. The website of the U.S. AFL/CIO,http://www.aflcio.org/issuespolitics/politics/, contains information on political action, candidate endorsement, and voter registration.

The importance of women’s votes should not be underestimated. For example, the U.S. organization “Women’s Voices Women’s Vote” states on their website, www.wvwv.org, that 22 million non-married women in the U.S. did not vote in the 2000 presidential election, making them the largest group of non-voters. Their website includes sections on resources for organizers and tools for local activists. Trade unions can work with and/or learn strategies from such women’s voter organizations.

Unions also can be effective in sponsoring legislation on sexual harassment issues. For example, the California Labor Federation successfully co-sponsored a bill, found on http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/wip/wip10142003.cfm, on sexual harassment of employees by third parties such as customers and clients.

Legislative advocacy on behalf of women’s issues sometimes can have an impact far beyond what anyone expects. For example, in 1964, the United States passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. According to http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/vii.html, this title was primarily intended to promote racial justice and equality. The National Women’s Party had lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment since 1923 and had sought to include the issue of sex in every civil rights bill that the U.S. Congress considered for forty years. They convinced a Congressman to introduce an amendment to Title VII that included the issue of sex.

The amendment was included and the result was surprising: "In the first year after enactment, one-third of charges filed with the EEOC alleged sex discrimination. Title VII, according to the U.S. EEOC, “Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Title VII, . . . Expanding the Reach – Making Title VII Work for Women and National Origin Minorities: Pregnancy, Harassment, and Language Determination, June 24, 2004;” www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/40th/panel/expanding.html, was definitely born out of the racial tension of the time, but the unexpected inclusion of sex in the statute quickly led women workers and the newly emerging women’s movement of the late 1960’s to take advantage of the opportunity to pursue equality in the courts.”

Advocates for women were also successful in using the sex grounds of Title VII to seek redress for sexual harassment in the workplace. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that sexual harassment that is sufficiently pervasive or severe constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex in working conditions.

The U.S. organization 9 to 5, http://feminist.com/9to5.htm, National Association of Working Women, also was active on the grassroots level and helped pass key legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and other anti-discrimination measures. This organization also sends out regular Action Alerts that provide legislative updates and tips on organizing on women’s labor issues.

Sometimes multiple approaches to advocacy with an employer are necessary. For example, the United States-based retailer, Wal-Mart has a history of unfair labor practices. As a result, the National Organization for Women (NOW), as complied from http://www.now.org/lists/news-releases/msg00075, html took action.

NOW's Women Friendly Workplace campaign named Wal-Mart a "Merchant of Shame" in 2002 in response to the company's growing list of unfair labor practices. Since that time, NOW activists have been conducting an education campaign at Wal-Mart stores throughout the country. Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the United States and has been charged in the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in history.

The case concerns alleged nationwide sex discrimination against women. According to http://www.now.org/lists/news-releases/msg00076.html, Wal-Mart already introduced initiatives for workplace diversity to prevent unfair treatment of workers and further gender bias. This comes at a time where some Canadian stores are voting on union membership. http://www.union-network.org/UNIsite/Sectors/Commerce/Multinationals/wal_mart_campaign_index_page.htm.