Sexual harassment and sexual violence occur in the workplace at an alarming rate, and at some work sites, the level of isolation and barriers to reporting are extreme, creating a perfect environment for exploitation and abuse. The 2015 documentary by the Center for Investigative Reporting and its partners, “Rape on the Night Shift,” highlighted the problem: women janitors working in isolated sites experience high rates of sexual harassment and violence on the job. Working alone at night, cleaning empty buildings for low pay, women in the janitorial industry are especially vulnerable to experiencing exploitation, assault, and abuse.
And while data on the incidence of violence in the industry is incomplete, we know that what has been reported is just the tip of the iceberg.
We are proud to work with a coalition of anti-violence advocates, union leaders, worker advocates and women worker leaders—the Ya Basta! Coalition—to advance the workplace safety and dignity of women and other workers vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence and harassment in the janitorial industry, and improve conditions for all workers. On August 9, our coalition presented our work at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) Statewide Conference, “Transformative Conversations,” alongside a group of women worker leaders, called promotoras. The conference provided us with the opportunity and platform to present our call to action and to share some of the lessons learned in collaborating to empower workers and support peer leaders in the workplace. We’re asking anti-violence advocates, leaders in the labor movement, and worker rights advocates to collaborate to prevent and end sexual violence perpetrated against low-wage workers in their communities.
This Labor Day, we honor the achievements of the promotoras and our coalition partners in the labor and worker rights movement. Several years ago, when leaders at SEIU-USWW and Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund recognized the urgent need to address sexual harassment and violence in the janitorial industry, they reached out to CALCASA and local anti-violence advocates from the East Los Angeles Women’s Center for help. The group further connected with legal advocates in worker rights and anti-violence fields: Futures Without Violence, Equal Rights Advocates, Worksafe, and the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program. Together, these groups collaborated to support survivors and build worker power, creating spaces through the promotora program that centered and lifted up survivor voices.
We know that cross-sector collaborations that build worker power, incorporate survivor voices, advance trauma-informed practices, and leverage the expertise of advocates from different fields, creates change. In 2016, 18 brave women janitor-worker leaders fasted on the steps of the California State Capitol to press Governor Brown to sign the Property Service Workers Protection Act (AB 1978), co-sponsored by SEIU-USWW and Equal Rights Advocates. The new law increases protections against sexual violence in the janitorial industry, making everyone safer at work.
And while we celebrate these achievements, our coalition recognizes there is still work to do. Together, we are committed to raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. We are building industry-specific responses alongside worker leaders. And we are developing and practicing a model for collaboration and worker-community engagement that we hope impacts other industries and regions. Because no worker should have to choose between her personal safety and feeding her family.
Elena Dineen, Staff Attorney for Programs
Futures Without Violence
Emily Austin, Director of Advocacy
Ya Basta! Coalition members include SEIU-USWW, CALCASA, Equal Rights Advocates, Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, Worksafe, and Futures Without Violence.
In a rush to improve response and increase accountability for sexual assault, advocates and survivors turn to the usual systems (criminal justice system, Federal and state laws) and the usual tools (mandatory minimums, sentence enhancements, legislation). My concern is that these very tools and systems are rife with bias and have had a historic and disparate impact on those most underserved—the poor and communities of color. We need accountability, we need society to no longer condone or silence the epidemic of sexual assault, but we also need creative, thoughtful, and meaningful action to influence and re-imagine what accountability looks like.
A recent article in the NY Times on how mandatory minimums are not necessarily the answer or the tool we should be using to end sexual violence inspired me. Adding more inflexibility to our criminal justice system is not the answer. One of my favorite TED talks is Bryan Stevenson’s We Need To Talk About Injustice. This talk goes deep into the startling and sad and systemic prejudice that seems unavoidable in our justice system. Stevenson reminds us of the connection that our systems have to the racism, classism and sexism that still exists in our society. Our systems were born and raised in this environment and that has lasting impacts.
Honestly, the criminal justice system is not a level playing field. It is influenced by money and fame and savvy. Take the recent Brock Turner case (Stanford swimmer sentenced to six months for sexual assault) and even more recent case of Austin Wilkerson, who was sentenced for no jail time after raping an unconscious woman. The judge in the Wilkerson case states that he didn’t think putting Wilkerson in jail was the best result for anyone and talks about seeing if Wilkerson can be rehabilitated. While the judge’s statements resonate with me and my ongoing drive to discover system responses that will effectively eradicate sexual assault, something still rings hollow for me.
How much of these flexible and context specific sentences are due to a commitment to improved forms of accountability and the promotion of rehabilitation? Would this be the judge’s reaction if the perpetrator was a person of color? Both Brock and Wilkerson are white and privileged men. They had their families supporting them and hired highly skilled and strategic defense lawyers and teams. As much as I want to support alternatives to the criminal justice system, I am overwhelmingly concerned that these recent cases are the realization of white, high socio-economic status and really reflect the near hijacking of a progressive movement to change the criminal justice system. What theses cases showcase is the importance of a good defense attorney, and what we know is that it takes a lot of money and resources to afford a good defense attorney.
I applaud and share in the spirit of criminal justice reform, the need to remove mandatory minimums, and the call to build in context and considerations for judicial decisions. I will continue to fight against one-size-fits all requirements, change laws that serve only the “perfect victim,” and work to slow or stop the unchecked growth of the privatized criminal industrial complex. We need to have the tough and transformative conversations that examine what we as advocates have built, and we need the grace and space to imagine better. What concerns me at this impasse is making sure this reasoning is going to apply to all levels of the system and will be afforded to all involved in the system. If these arguments of rehabilitation and mitigation are only raised for white perpetrators, how does that reinforce a false narrative that connects criminality to communities of color?
If we want to have a true justice system, and if we want to have honest systems of accountability for sexual assault—then it shouldn’t matter how much money you have or the color of your skin. And right now it does.
The definition of civil rights within our schools is in the news again and there is another “Dear Colleague Letter.” This time schools are the site of the debate around gender identity. It is clear that schools must play a role in representing opportunity for all and shifting the cultural landscapes that continue to oppress, control and silence some in society. This is not a new concept.
Our schools are a system with extreme responsibilities—responsibilities beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Schools are a site of socialization, and thus a necessary space for social change. The current issues of sex discrimination, sexual violence, and discrimination based on gender identity remind me of the same social justice movements to de-segregate schools in the 1950’s and 60’s (and even today). I think of that iconic Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With”—strong Ruby Bridges—a six year old with determination, caught up in much more than schooling in that walk to school. With this current movement/backlash to legalize discrimination against the transgendered community, we are forcing the same civil rights and social justice battles to be played out in our schools, with our 6 year olds, again.
Maybe the walk to school should not be a symbol of social justice, but it is. As the adults that care for youth, and as the youth that are growing in their own power and voice, we have a duty to make our school systems reflect the basic human rights and principles of our nation. That does not mean that everyone must get along, and it does not mean that no one will feel uncomfortable—but it does mean that we do not sanction discrimination just because some are uncomfortable. I will be watching our schools and the agencies that govern them to see how they respond to this call for social justice. We have done this before with varying levels of success. Inclusion, response, accommodation, and respect should be cornerstones of our schools (and these are the history lessons from desegregation, Title IX and ADA). This moment is no different, and we should be better at realizing the opportunity to get it right this time. Schools are a powerful display of our social norms, and those norms must reflect a belief in liberty and justice for all children no matter how they identify their gender.