Collective Action Key to Fighting Sexual Harassment

When women organize to fight back against sexual harassment, they’re more effective and better protected than when they go it alone, says Jacobin’s Alex Press

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Accusations of sexual harassment and of sexual violence have surfaced with increasing frequency these days, from movie producer Harvey Weinstein to actor Kevin Spacey to Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore, and very recently to Democratic Senator Al Franken. Of course, we should not forget the numerous other allegations that have also been made against, say President Donald Trump, or Bill Clinton and numerous other incidences that have risen in the history of this issue. The details of the sexual harassment accusations may differ, but one constant factor is the powerful perpetrator, usually in the context of a workplace situation.

Joining me now to analyze the recent wave of accusation and what can be done about sexual harassment is Alex Press. Alex is an assistant editor at Jacobin, and PhD student in sociology at Northeastern University. She recently penned an article for Jacobin and for In These Times about this issue. Thanks for joining us today, Alex.

ALEX PRESS: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, as I mentioned in the introduction, what almost all of these cases of sexual harassment have in common is that they happened in a workplace context, where the perpetrator was in a position of power. In your article for Jacobin, you argue that while individual women speaking out is a good first step, this is not enough. Instead we need to take collective action against sexual harassment. Explain what you meant by that.

ALEX PRESS: Sure. I tried to demonstrate in the Jacobin piece, and elsewhere in other articles, that when you’re one woman, or less often a man, facing sexual harassment or sexual abuse in the workplace, you have a lot to lose when you speak out by yourself. And so I advocate specifically for unions as the best vehicle for addressing these issues, but really any collective action amongst your colleagues or across other workplaces helps provide a safety for the victim themselves, so that they don’t have to go up against the boss, don’t have to risk repercussions alone. They have people next to them who say, “You can’t fire us all. We stand with this person.”

I address that in the piece through my own experiences, but also I think you could apply it to a lot of the cases we’ve seen in the media lately, where if it’s just one woman accusing, there is a potential for a lot of backlash. But as we see more and more women come forward, it becomes harder to discredit the accuser.

SHARMINI PERIES: So Alex, if we were to apply this to one of the more prominent cases of sexual harassment, the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a lot of people have come out and supported the women who’ve complained and gone public with their allegations. Is this a kind of collective action you’re talking about, and if so, that’s great. And then what can be done to elaborate on such collective action?

ALEX PRESS: Sure. I think the public’s support for these women, in that case, has been really important. A huge part of why women aren’t coming forward in a lot of industries is the assumption that they’ll be discredited and seen as the problem maker, rather than someone who’s fighting for the industry to be better. I think in this case, that’s a great and important thing. It has a real, I think, strong effect when other women see that’s the response and know that they won’t be completely discredited or shunned. I think that brings people to speak out more.

That said, some of the conversation around the Weinstein case specifically has drawn in with the union in Hollywood could have done, so SAG-ATRA specifically being the Screen Actors Guild that represents most of, if not all of, the victims in these cases. And some of that conversation, I think, has been really productive in that actors, including Mia Kirshner, who’s a Canadian actress. Morgan, I can’t remember his last name. He wrote a piece for us about this issue where they talk about what SAG-AFTRA could have done and what it didn’t do, and I think that’s a really productive place for the conversation to move.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alex, elaborate on the kind of activities that the union could be engaged in, in order to prevent this kind of workplace harassment.

ALEX PRESS: Sure. The specific case of SAG-AFTRA and Harvey Weinstein, you know, there’s a couple things that have been laid out as changes SAG-AFTRA could make. The president of SAG-AFTRA recently in a piece in Politico, she was quoted saying that a lot of these cases happened off the clock. These were women who, you know the disgusting image of the casting couch of Hollywood, where it’s off hours, and you’re invited to a bar, or a hotel room to talk to someone powerful. The president said, “Look, our contracts regulate on the job hours and there’s nothing we necessarily can do at the moment about what happens off the clock.” And I think part of her quote there was acknowledging that there needs to be a change and a recognition of the real conditions of the workplace. And in that industry, it isn’t enough to just talk about what’s happening on a set, say, or in an office.

And so I think one thing SAG-AFTRA is probably considering, and again, I’m not in SAG-AFTRA, so I don’t know how this is functioning internally, but they’re considering whether there’s a way to track retaliation against women who’ve brought these cases, and what to do about that retaliation, so can you blacklist a set that’s run by someone who has retaliated against victims in the same way that SAG-AFTRA will send do-not-work notices about non-union sets. The same thing could be done about men that are, say, blacklisting certain women or their supporters from work. That’s one example, but certainly just in a very narrow sense of taking a way a legalistic view of this problem and sort of bringing together the women and men that are really fired up about this at the moment and willing to put in quite a bit of work to address the issue, and bringing in the more people thinking about the issue and giving input, the better.

I’m quite sure that SAG-AFTRA is doing that right now, and certainly I know that other unions are doing the same thing.

SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. In your article you go further, especially in the one In These Times, you point out that sexual harassment is also an issue for the left, that too often the left tends to bury accusations of sexual harassment within the movement or organizations in the name of advancing other issues. How pervasive do you feel that this is a problem in the left today, and what can we do to address it?

ALEX PRESS: Sure. I think any conversation about how this happens, it has to start with an acknowledgment that we all exist in an incredibly patriarchal society in which we’re surrounded by this poorly behaved, this unacceptable behavior, so it would be a miracle if it didn’t happen in the left. Right? That would be incredible, but it does. The idea that it happens more or less, I think is bizarre. It probably happens less on the left because we take these things seriously, but it does happen. I don’t think, especially in this moment, I think there is a real attempt to get rid of this instinct to cover these incidents up or to talk about them really privately in hopes of not tarring the broader movement or what campaigns we’re working on.

And there have been cases recently of this being dealt with in, I think, a really positive light. As for what we can do, you know, I lay out in the article you’re referencing, for In These Times, that part of it has to be a change to the instincts about if someone raises this, it’s harmful. I think if we start acknowledging that raising these issues within, whether it’s a union or a social movement campaign, or anywhere else, we have to realize that that would help building a stronger left. We don’t want men that might endanger our campaign and, you know, giving a gift to the right. We don’t want them leading our movements, so this is about strengthening of a left that can actually win and sustain power. I think that is something that is still being argued. I’m certainly arguing it in a lot of left spaces. I think everyone on the left is largely in agreement that sexual harassment is not okay morally or ethically, but the idea that it’s strategically also a huge problem in our movements–that’s an argument that still has to be won.

SHARMINI PERIES: This is a big issue in the left. I refer back to conversations about, or articles that have been written about the unhappy marriage between Marxism and feminism, or socialism and feminism, and that the greater issue of class is of utmost importance, and therefore gender issues are buried underneath the overall class struggle. The conversations you are referring to that needs to happen, is a good thing, but how do we actually force this and rupture the issue to come to the forefront of debate and discussion?

ALEX PRESS: To start, I don’t think that there’s this strong narrative right now in the past few years of socialism or Marxism being at odds with a feminist approach. And I think fortunately we’re seeing a lot of incredibly strong, smart, particularly [inaudible 00:10:50] women who are showing that these two things go hand in hand. That there is a real … All of these issues, whether it’s sexual harassment or anything else that is seen as engendered or within the issue, that these are completely about how workers are kept, over-exploited and underpaid, and that this is not any different than a class issue.

That said, I think what we can do is ensure that in our space, it would have to be a more specific example of what you do because it’s case to case. If you’re a publication or an organization or a union, you have very clear processes in place that show that there are channels to raise grievances. DSA, for example, which is an organization I’m a member of, recently passed a grievance procedure that is incredibly specific about how you will step-by-step address a grievance about sexual harassment or sexual assault, should it come up. And I think having very clear-cut channels like that is definitely the first step in more formal organizations.

The question of the broader left is much harder. It’s an amorphous movement. That is as much about cultural change as it is about anything else. So having leadership that takes this seriously and having it be an impediment to your leadership if it’s shown that you don’t, I think is a really clear way to address this, but when we’re talking about complete volunteer labor in a movement, there is no policy you can put in place, other than the trust that this is gonna be taken seriously if and when it does come up.

SHARMINI PERIES: Finally, Alex, when I grew up a few decades ago, it was more that the women’s movement was stronger on these issues. I mean, you saw huge campaigns on violence against women, domestic violence, workplace harassment, and so on. Much of that has died down recently. We don’t see the same kinds of campaigns that were there in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Why is that so?

ALEX PRESS: Well, I think there is a real dearth of a feminist movement. You know, sometimes in my most despaired moments I say we have no feminist movement. And so why that is, I think is as much about that movement’s shift into non-profits and very close ties to establishment politicians, and losing track of the radical roots of being willing to confront power, being willing to make trouble to push for things in the streets, rather than in legislative initiatives only. As for today, I think there is a clear need for such a movement again. And I think it’s hard to talk about women’s issues without talking about probably what is affecting people the most right now, which is the attack on reproductive rights. When we talk about the feminist movement, it’s hard to say we even have one when we’re seeing those rights be taken more and more away every year, over the past few years.

So I think there’s a mix of reasons for why the feminist movement doesn’t exist in the same way, but certainly I hope to use the growing energy and interest in the left broadly that we’ve seen since the Sanders’ campaign, and build a left that actually incorporates from a feminist analysis, instead of trying to, in the future, glean one onto an existing left.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Alex, I thank you so much for joining us today in an interesting conversation, which I hope to continue. Thanks so much for joining us today.

ALEX PRESS: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.