The not-so-secret ingredient in the downfall of powerful men such as CBS Chairman Les Moonves last week, and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, last year, has been the exposé, the blockbuster revelations of sexual harassment that have embarrassed their employers and made it economically risky to keep them around.
This ingredient is unattainable for women in low-wage jobs in factories, fields, fast-food restaurants and other jobs where many are manhandled, harassed or assaulted and suffer in obscurity.
That’s starting to change as the “Me Too” movement trickles down to all sorts of workplaces where it’s most needed. The pace is slow, and this moment should not be allowed to fade without changing workplaces from the bottom up. But at least the first signs of change are cropping up in a variety of workplaces:
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►On Tuesday, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities from Durham, North Carolina, to Los Angeles plan a walkout to pressure management to prevent sexual harassment and take action when it occurs at stores across the country. This follows harassment and assault charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by 10 workers against franchise restaurants. They include a worker in Gretna, Louisiana, who says a co-worker pinned her against a bathroom wall and tried to rape her, and a 15-year-old in St. Louis who told a manager that a co-worker made “comments about my body, what he would do to me.” The boss’ response? “You will never win that battle.”
►This month, five major hotel chains — Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott and Wyndham — pledged to equip all housekeepers with panic buttons to quickly get help if they are harassed or assaulted. Union surveys in Chicago and Seattle found that more than 50% of housekeepers, who often work in isolation, have been sexually harassed by a guest. Unite Here, their union, has spent years pressing the issue with limited success, but spurred by the #MeToo movement, companies, the hotel trade association and even city councils are acting. Chicago passed a mandate for the safety devices last year, as did Miami Beach in July. In Long Beach, California, voters will see initiatives on the November ballot.
►The federal judiciary, rocked last year by allegations that U.S. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski had subjected law clerks and law students to a range of sexual misconduct, quickly set up a group to deal with the broad issue. Last week, two Judicial Conference committees proposed significant changes that would for the first time explicitly prohibit sexual harassment and make it easier for employees to report complaints. That’s speedy action by the normally slow-footed judicial branch.
►In January, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund was founded with $13 million in donations to provide lawyers for women who don’t have the money to hire one. Now, 700 lawyers across the country have agreed to provide free initial consultations, and some are taking cases at discount rates or free. In just nine months, more than 3,500 women have contacted the fund with complaints.
EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic and Commissioner Chai Feldblum also see signs that Me Too is moving beyond women in Hollywood and the news media who’ve seen its benefits. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, which began last October, while overall filings with the EEOC are down, sex-based harassment complaints are up nearly 3.5%. Small and midsize companies are more receptive to learning how to get ahead of the problem rather than simply reacting to complaints.
Lipnic adds that while many people wrongly thought a certain amount of harassment was a normal part of the workplace, #MeToo woke up everyone to the fact that “none of it is acceptable.”
There’s still a long way to go. The MeToo movement will not achieve the sea change it promises as long as any woman goes to work vulnerable to sexual harassment and retaliation.